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What we all need to know about the pain and danger of spinal cord compression

As we surge through our daily schedule of work, exercise, and family chores, we often take our physical health for granted. But when back or leg pain strikes, the whole picture can change and terms like “spinal cord compression” become urgent. Sudden changes or gradual developments create pain, raise questions, and need answers.

We need to know what is happening and what to do about it.

The Hopkins Medical Center explains, “Your spinal cord is the bundle of nerves that carries messages back and forth from your brain to your muscles and other soft tissues.  The backbones, vertebrae, hold your body upright and protect the spinal cord and the nerves that run out to the muscles through the vertebrae.

Spinal cord compression can happen from your neck down to your lower spine causing numbness, pain, or weakness. Symptoms may be sudden or gradual, and treatment can range from supportive care to emergency surgery. If you have symptoms  see your doctor and pinpoint the problem.”

Typical symptoms that you might experience:

  • 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 legs
  • Loss of sensation in the feet
  • Difficulty with hand coordination
  • "Foot drop," weakness in a foot that causes a limp
  • Loss of sexual ability

Important Note: “Pressure on nerves in the lumbar region can cause a  serious syndrome, cauda equina. If you have any of the following symptoms go to an emergency room immediately: Loss of bowel or bladder control. Severe or increasing numbness between the legs, inner thighs, and back of the legs. Severe pain and weakness that spreads into one or both legs, making it hard to walk or get out of a chair.”

Common conditions causing compression:

  • Osteoarthritis (usually age 50 and over)
  • Abnormal spine alignment
  • Injury to the spine
  • Spinal tumor
  • Certain bone diseases
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Infection

Seeing Your Doctor: Your doctor will check your symptoms and look for loss of sensation, weakness, and abnormal reflexes. Tests  may include spinal X-rays, CT or MRI Imaging or an EMG, electrical testing of the muscle.

Treatment can involve arthritis specialists, bone surgeons, nerve specialists, and physical therapists.  Medications may be nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs that relieve pain and swelling, and steroid injections that reduce swelling. Physical therapy may include exercises to strengthen back, abdominal, and leg muscles, with acupuncture and chiropractic treatment working in conjunction.

Help prevent gradual wear and tear:

  • Get regular exercise to strengthen muscles that support your back and keep your spine flexible.
  • Maintain good posture and learn how to safely lift heavy objects. Sleep on a firm mattress and sit in a chair that supports the natural curves of your back.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.  Extra weight stresses  your back and contributes to spinal compression.

Managing spinal cord compression. Work closely with your doctor and learn as much as possible about your condition. Keep your back as healthy as possible with regular exercise and good spinal support. Simple remedies like an ice bag, heating pad, massage, or a long hot shower can help.

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