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Compression of the Spinal Cord: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

There are a number of reasons you could experience pain from spinal cord compression. First, the pain is caused by any condition that puts pressure on your spinal cord. The spinal cord is a tightly woven 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 the spine, which is made up of solid bone called vertebrae. The spine allows you to stand upright and is responsible for allowing your body to move.

Causes of Compression of the Spinal Cord

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, compression on the spinal cord can happen anywhere along the spine from your neck down to your low back. One of the most common causes of spinal cord compression is the gradual wear and tear on the bones of the spine caused by aging or osteoarthritis, otherwise known as degenerative joint disease. Joint degeneration occurs when bones rub against each other. People with degenerative joint disease often have joint stiffness, pain and swelling, and are over the age of 50. Pain develops gradually.

But there are other conditions causing spinal cord compression with sudden onset — at any age. These include abnormal spine alignment or scoliosis, injury, spinal tumor, bone disease, rheumatoid arthritis, or infection.

Symptoms of Spinal Cord Compression

Symptoms of spinal cord compression are:

  • Pain and stiffness in the neck, back, or lower back
  • Burning pain that spreads to the arms, buttocks, or down into the legs (sciatica)
  • Numbness, cramping, or weakness in the arms, hands, or leg
  • Loss of sensation in the feet
  • Trouble with hand or leg coordination
  • "Foot drop," weakness in a foot that causes a limp
  • Loss of sexual ability

How Serious is Compression of the Spinal Cord?

The seriousness of this condition is dependent on the cause and severity of the symptoms. For some, the condition can be treated with medicines like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that relieve pain and swelling and steroid injections that reduce swelling. Your physician may prescribe physical therapy to strengthen your back, abdominal, and leg muscles. You may learn how to do activities more safely to help minimize the pain. Doctors may also suggest wearing a brace to support your back, or a cervical collar.

But keep in mind, there are sudden, more serious onset cases that can land you in the emergency room. Those conditions may require surgery to remove bone spurs and widen the space between vertebrae or to stabilize the spine with fusion.

It’s important to see a pain specialist from the National Spine & Pain Centers to receive the proper diagnostic tests, which may include X-ray, MRI, CT scan, and electromyography (EMG), an electrical test of muscle activity. There are many causes of spinal pain, including spinal compression fractures in which the vertebrae collapse. Since the pain mimics many other conditions, it is important to receive proper diagnosis to avoid exacerbating the problem. There are non-surgical interventions that can provide pain relief.

Although spinal cord compression cannot always be prevented, there are things you can do to maintain a healthy spine and minimize pain in the future. Those include maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, practicing good posture and good body mechanics, sleeping on a firm mattress, plus keeping your core strong so that your spine doesn’t bear the brunt of your weight and movement.

Although pain specialists will caution you to not try to “decompress” your spine on your own, rather seek proper care and physical therapy, there are ways to get relief at home without causing damage. You might try an exercise like this: inhale, sit up and place your right hand behind you and place your left hand on your right knee. Exhale and gently twist to the right. This allows for lengthening through the spine, thus relieving tension.

Is Compression of the Spinal Cord Considered a Disability?

According to the Social Security Administration, anyone with a spinal cord injury can file a claim for disability benefits as long as the injury has lasted at least three months and is expected to make it impossible for you to work for at least 12 months. SSA will determine your eligibility.

If you are experiencing back pain, your next step should be to seek proper diagnosis from a board-certified pain management specialist at the National Spine & Pain Centers. Find a location near you.

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