Spinal Cord Compression

Written by MaryAnn DePietro | Published on October 29, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on October 29, 2013

What Is Spinal Cord Compression?

The spinal cord consists of nerves that send signals or messages back and forth between the brain and the rest of the body. Spinal cord compression occurs when a mass places pressure on the cord. A mass can include a tumor or bone fragment. Compression can develop anywhere along the spinal cord from the neck to the lower spine.

What Causes Spinal Cord Compression?

There are many causes of spinal cord compression. In some cases, the compression can come on suddenly. In other instances, compression occurs over time. Causes of spinal cord compression include: 
  • Certain degenerative diseases, such as arthritis, can lead to spinal cord compression.
  • A ruptured disk may lead to spinal cord compression.   
  • Injury to the spinal cord or to the area around the cord can lead to swelling, which can cause compression.
  • Bleeding disorders coupled with chiropractic manipulation can result in large clots compressing the spinal cord.
  • Both cancerous and noncancerous tumors can grow in the space near the spinal cord. If this occurs, the tumor can put pressure on the cord, causing compression.

Who Is at Risk for Spinal Cord Compression?

Anyone can have an injury or develop a condition that leads to spinal cord compression. There are a few factors which may increase a person’s risk. Use of poor lifting techniques may increase a person’s risk of a neck or back injury, which can cause spinal cord compression. People who have osteoarthritis may also be at an increased risk for developing spinal cord compression. 

What Are the Symptoms of Spinal Cord Compression?

Symptoms of spinal cord compression can vary. They depend on how severe the compression is and on what area of the spinal cord is compressed.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, one of the most common symptoms is pain in the back or the neck.

Numbness or weaknesses in the legs, hands, and arms can also develop. If the cord compression is in the lumbar area, a condition known as cauda equina syndrome can develop. Symptoms of this syndrome include severe pain and weakness in the legs, loss of bowel and bladder control, and severe numbness in the back of the legs and inner thighs.

How Is Spinal Cord Compression Diagnosed?

Doctors can diagnose spinal cord compression with a medical history and an exam, along with an X-ray of the spine and a CT scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test. Both tests can provide a detailed image of a patient’s spine.  

In some cases, the doctor may order a myelogram, which involves injecting dye into the spinal area and then taking a CT scan of that area. 

How Is Spinal Cord Compression Treated?

Treatment for a spinal compression depends on the causes and the severity of the compression. Reduced physical activity or immobilization may be recommended. Treatment plans can include:

  • Medication: Anti-inflammatory medications may help decrease swelling and reduce pain.
  • Injections: When oral medications are not effective, epidural steroid injections into the spinal area may help treat symptoms of a spinal cord compression.
  • Physical therapy: Some people with spinal cord compressions may benefit from physical therapy. Exercises can help strengthen the abdominal and leg muscles, which may help decrease symptoms.
  • Surgery: If more conservative treatments don’t work, surgery may be an option. Depending on the cause of the compression, surgery can fuse vertebrae together, remove bone spurs, or increase the space between the vertebrae. 
  • Home care: Home care involves decreasing pain. Applying ice packs and heating pads may help. Over-the-counter pain relievers may also be used.
  • Alternative treatments: Alternative treatments can include acupuncture or acupressure. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, chiropractic manipulation should not be used for spinal cord compression.

Other treatments may be used in some cases. For example, if a tumor is causing cord compression, radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be prescribed to shrink the tumor (Johns Hopkins Medicine).

What Is the Outlook for Spinal Cord Compression?

The cause of the compression along with the severity of symptoms affects prognosis. Some patients respond well to treatment while others may not.  

How Is Spinal Cord Compression Prevented?

Since there are many causes of spinal cord compression, it may not be possible to prevent it in all cases. Maintaining a healthy weight and getting regular exercise can help reduce added pressure on the back and symptoms of a cord compression. Learning how to lift properly may decrease the likelihood of an injury, which can lead to a spinal cord compression.

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