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Spinal cord compression is caused by any condition that puts pressure on your spinal cord. Your spinal cord is the bundle of nerves that carries messages back and forth from your brain to your muscles and other soft tissues. As your spinal cord travels down your back, it is protected by a stack of backbones called vertebrae. They also hold your body upright. The nerves of your spinal cord run through the openings between the vertebrae and out to your muscles.
Spinal cord compression can occur anywhere from your neck (cervical spine) down to your lower back (lumbar spine). Symptoms include numbness, pain, and weakness. Depending on the cause of the compression, symptoms may develop suddenly or gradually, and they may require anything from supportive care to emergency surgery.
One of the most common causes of spinal cord compression is the gradual wear and tear on the bones of the spine, known as osteoarthritis. People who develop spinal cord compression from this are usually older than 50.
Other conditions that may cause spinal cord compression can develop more quickly, even very suddenly, and can occur at any age:
Symptoms of spinal cord compression can develop quickly or slowly, depending on the cause. Injuries may cause immediate symptoms. Tumors or infections may cause symptoms that develop over days or weeks. Wear and tear of the spine may take years to cause symptoms.
These are common symptoms:
Pressure on nerves in the lumbar region (lower back) can also cause more serious symptoms known as cauda equina syndrome. If you have any of these symptoms, you need to get medical attention right away, typically in the emergency room:
To diagnose spinal cord compression, your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and do a complete physical exam. During the exam, your doctor will look for signs of spinal compression, such as loss of sensation, weakness, and abnormal reflexes. Tests that help with your diagnosis may include:
The medical team involved in treating your spinal cord compression may include arthritis specialists, bone surgeons, nerve specialists, and physical therapists. Treatment depends on the cause and your symptoms and may involve medication, physical therapy, injections, and surgery. Except in cases of emergency, such as cauda equina syndrome or a broken back, surgery is usually the last resort.
Some other treatments that may be helpful for some people include acupuncture and chiropractic care.
Many causes of spinal cord compression can’t be prevented. You can help prevent symptoms of spinal cord compression caused by gradual wear and tear by keeping your back as strong and healthy as possible.
The best way to manage spinal cord compression is to learn as much as you can about your condition, work closely with your health care providers and caregivers, and take an active role in your treatment.
Keep your back as healthy as possible by maintaining a healthy weight, practicing good body mechanics, and getting regular exercise.
Simple home remedies like an ice bag, heating pad, massage, or a long hot shower can help reduce pain.
The nutritional supplements glucosamine and chondroitin have been recommended as nutritional supplements for people with osteoarthritis, but recent studies have been disappointing. Ask your health care provider if he or she recommends any supplements for you and always discuss any alternative treatments or medications you’d like to try.
Spinal cord compression can cause cauda equina syndrome, which needs medical attention right away. Call your health care provider or go to the emergency room if you have:
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:
Bayhealth is Southern Delaware’s healthcare leader with hospitals in Dover and in Milford. Bayhealth provides a wide range of medical services, including cardiovascular, cancer, orthopaedics and rehabilitation, pediatrics, respiratory care, sleep care, surgical weight loss and women’s services.