Cervical stenosis (CS) is the medical term for the narrowing of the spinal canal in the cervical or “neck” region of the spine. In CS, the upper part of the spinal canal becomes narrowed, compressing the spinal cord and nerve roots in this area.

CS can cause various symptoms, such as:

  • neck pain
  • numbness and weakness in the upper body
  • a lack of coordination
  • hand dexterity

Treatment for CS depends on the cause and severity of the condition. Many cases are manageable with gentle exercise, physical therapy, and medication. Doctors may recommend surgery for CS that does not respond to more conservative treatments.

This article describes CS, including its symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment. We also ask whether exercises can help to alleviate CS and provide tips on when to seek help for the condition.

An old anatomical illustration of the spine, seen horizontally..Share on Pinterest
VintageMedStock/Getty Images

Stenosis is the medical term for narrowing. Spinal stenosis refers to the narrowing of the spinal canal, which contains the spinal cord and nerve roots. This narrowing compresses the spinal cord and nerve roots, resulting in symptoms.

Aside from cervical, there are two other main types of spinal stenosis:

  • Lumbar stenosis (LS): This type affects the lower back or “lumbar” region of the spine, which consists of five individual vertebrae labeled L1 through L5.
  • Thoracic stenosis (TS): This type affects the mid-back or “thoracic” region of the spine, which consists of 12 individual vertebrae labeled T1 through T12.

Some people with spinal stenosis do not experience any symptoms. This is because spinal canal narrowing does not always cause spinal column and nerve compression.

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), if symptoms of CS do occur, they may include the following:

The spine consists of individual bones or “vertebrae” and discs of cartilage that sit between each vertebra. These “intervertebral discs” help to support and stabilize the spine while also cushioning the vertebrae from shock and injury.

According to the AANS, aging is the most common cause of cervical stenosis.

Age-related bone changes that can cause or worsen spinal stenosis include:

  • drying and rupturing of the intervertebral discs, which reduces their ability to function as shock absorbers between the vertebrae
  • thickening and rigidity of the bones and ligaments of the spine
  • the development of bony growths or spurs on the vertebrae, which compress the nerve roots in those areas

A 2015 study found that X-rays of older people who had symptoms of lumbar stenosis also commonly demonstrated asymptomatic cervical and thoracic stenosis.

Other possible causes of spinal stenosis include:

When diagnosing cervical stenosis, doctors will consider a person’s symptoms and medical history and perform a physical examination. They may also order the following tests:

  • X-ray: A medical imaging test that helps check spinal alignment and detect fractures and signs of arthritis.
  • CT scan: An imaging test that helps to detect bone abnormalities, such as:
    • spurs
    • fused bones
    • weakened or fractured bones
  • MRI scan: An imaging test that builds a picture of the spinal cord, nerve roots, and surrounding areas. It helps to detect herniated discs, tumors, and other abnormalities.
  • Myelogram: Involves injecting a contrast dye and taking an X-ray or CT scan to detect issues with the spinal canal, such as:
  • Electromyogram (EMG) and nerve conduction studies (NCSs): A procedure that helps to detect and locate nerve damage.It involves inserting electrodes into the skin and muscle to detect electrical activity in these tissues.

According to the AANS, nonsurgical treatment is the primary approach for most people with CS-related neck pain. They suggest that the following treatments can be beneficial for people with CS resulting from cervical disc herniations:

If a person has a more severe form of CS that does not respond to conservative treatment, their doctor may recommend surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots. The type of surgery a person receives depends on the cause of their CS and the tissues affected.

Can exercises help?

Exercise may help to ease the symptoms of CS. The British Association of Spine Surgeons (BASS) recommends gentle exercise to help improve fitness, strength, and spinal mobility.

The BASS recommends starting with an exercise regime that includes cycling on a static bike for 2–3 minutes daily. Once a person is comfortable, they can increase the duration of exercise sessions and progress to other gentle forms of exercise.

While most people experience pain with any form of spinal stenosis, most recover without surgery. Disk herniation occurs in 1–3% of cases, while nerve root compression occurs in less than 2% of cases.

A person with symptomatic CS may benefit from gentle exercise and physical therapy. They should seek guidance from a physical therapist or doctor to ensure their exercise program is safe and effective.

A person should seek medical help as soon as possible if they experience any of the following:

  • persistent and unmanageable pain
  • difficulties with mobility
  • difficulty carrying out everyday tasks

In many cases, medications can help to manage pain and inflammation without the need for surgery.

CS is the medical term for the narrowing of the cervical section of the spinal canal. This narrowing can compress the spinal cord and nerve roots in the neck area, causing neck pain and other symptoms.

Most cases of CS are due to age-related changes to the bones and ligaments. Other possible causes include poor posture, injury, and arthritis.

Many people with symptomatic CS benefit from brief bed rest followed by gentle exercise, sometimes in addition to medications to control pain and inflammation. Doctors typically only recommend surgical treatment for people with severe CS that does not respond to more conservative treatments.