Cervical Spinal Stenosis: Care Instructions

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Your Care Instructions

Skeletal view of spine, with detail of narrowed spinal canal in cervical area (neck)

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the canal that surrounds the spinal cord and nerve roots. Sometimes bone and other tissue grow into this canal and press on the nerves that branch out from the spinal cord. This can happen as a part of aging.

When the narrowing happens in your neck, it's called cervical spinal stenosis. It often causes stiffness, pain, numbness, and weakness in the neck, shoulders, arms, hands, or legs. It can even cause problems with your balance, coordination, and bowel or bladder control. But some people have no symptoms.

You may be able to get relief from the symptoms of spinal stenosis by taking pain medicine. Your doctor may suggest physiotherapy and exercises to keep your spine strong and flexible. Some people try steroid shots to reduce swelling. If pain and numbness in your neck, arms, or legs are still so bad that you cannot do your normal activities, you may need surgery.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

  • Ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
  • Do not take two or more pain medicines at the same time unless the doctor told you to. Many pain medicines have acetaminophen, which is Tylenol. Too much acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be harmful.
  • Change positions often when you are standing or sitting. This may reduce pressure on the spinal cord and its nerves.
  • When you rest, use pillows or towel rolls to support your neck and head in a comfortable position.
  • Follow your doctor's instructions about activity. He or she may tell you not to do sports or activities that could injure your neck.
  • Stretch your neck and shoulders as your doctor or physiotherapist recommends. If your doctor says it is okay to do them, these exercises may help:
    • Neck stretches to the side. Keep your shoulders relaxed and slowly tilt your head straight over toward one shoulder. Hold for 15 seconds. Let the weight of your head stretch your muscles. Then do the same toward the other shoulder.
    • Neck rotations. Keep your chin level and slowly turn your head to one side. Hold for 15 seconds. Then do the same to the other side.
    • Shoulder rolls. Roll your shoulders up, then back, and then down in a smooth, circular motion. Repeat several times.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You are unable to move an arm or a leg at all.

Call your doctor or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worse symptoms in your neck, arms, or legs. Symptoms may include:
    • Numbness or tingling.
    • Weakness.
    • Pain.
  • You lose bladder or bowel control.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse call line if:

  • You are not getting better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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