Spinal Cord Compression: Causes, Symptoms

Spinal cord compression occurs when there is pressure on the spinal cord. The pressure can occur anywhere from the neck to the lower back giving rise to a lot of symptoms like numbness, loss of sensation, paralysis, etc.

The spinal cord is a part of the Central Nervous system that carry messages from the brain to other part of the body, through nerves connection known as spinal nerves.

The spinal nerve is like a bundle of wires (nerves) that connects your brain to different parts of your body like your hands, legs, etc, carrying messages from the brain to those parts and also from the parts of the body, back to the brain.

Just imagine the Brain to be like a NEPA office/transmission station/Kanji Dam, where power (light) is generated from. The Spinal cord is like your transformer that receives the power (light) from the brain (NEPA office/Kanji Dam/Transmission station), and then sends it through the spinal nerves (electric cables on the Poles) to the other organs in the body (which are the houses in your street).

If there is any problems with any of the Wires (spinal nerves), from the transformer (spinal cord) to your house (body), that house/houses would not have light. This is the same thing that happens in Spinal cord compression.

If due to the spinal cord compression, there is injury/damage to any spinal nerve (wire/cables), the part of the body supplied by that nerve, would not function again. So if the injury happens to a spinal nerve supplying the leg for example, the person would not be able to walk. If it happens to a nerve supplying the hands, the person would not be able to use the hands again.

This is a summary of what happens here. How does this happen, and what causes this spinal cord compression?
Let us try to explain this. Keep reading.

Table of Content

What is Spinal Cord Compression?

The spinal cord is surrounded by a number of round bony structures known as the vertebrae. Because the spinal cord is fragile & easily damaged, these vertebras protect the spinal cord from injury & external influences.

Spinal cord compression results when there is pressure on the spinal cord. This pressure can occur anywhere: from your neck (cervical spine) to your lower back (lumbar spine).

When this happens you experience certain symptoms which can range from pain to numbness, weakness and more develop. These symptoms will manifest in varying degrees which depend on what is causing the compression and how it causes it.

Spinal cord compression
notice Compression indicated by the arrows. Image credit: MSD Manuals

What Causes Spinal Cord Compression?

One of the most common causes of Spinal cord compression is vertebral osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis is a disease that affects our joints like Knee joint, elbow joint, etc, and makes it to swell and become very painful.
In terms of spinal cord compression, the problem is in the joints between the vertebraes.

Due to this swelling, the space from where the spinal nerves leave the spinal cord is reduced, and this then puts pressure on the spinal cord, and compresses them.

Osteoarthritis usually takes time to develop, as a results, it is more commonly seen in the elderly people.

But that is not the only cause of Spinal cord compression. Other causes include:
Trauma to vertebrae: like someone being hit on the back. This can transfer direct trauma to the spinal cord, and since the spinal cord is fragile and not strong, it would lead to its outright damage or swelling which further compresses it.

Spinal tumors: These are growth (masses) which can be derived from the spinal cord itself or from the structures that protects it, and can compress viable nerves within the cord.

Infection of spinal canal: this can produce a collection of pus which compresses the spinal cord or spinal nerves.

Some bone diseases: these can cause the bones themselves to shrink (reduce in size) and thereby narrowing the space of the outlets.

Abnormal vertebral alignment (scoliosis): the misalignment causes a reduction of the space from which the nerves leave the cord, thereby compressing these nerves which leave from there.

What are the Symptoms of Spinal Cord Compression?

Symptoms of Spinal cord compression can present quickly or may be delayed. It depends on the speed of the damage. For example, symptoms resulting from trauma (example, in vehicular accidents) will most likely appear immediately or within days whereas, symptoms from spinal infections or tumors would take longer over days or week to appear.

It is also important to know that the site of appearance of the symptoms will tell us the level of the cord where the damage happened.

The following are common symptoms of spinal cord compression. They would let you know when a person have this condition:

  1. Loss of sensation in the feet and lower limbs
  2. Burning sensation that moves from the arms to the buttocks to the lower limbs
  3. Pain and stiffness in the lower back and lower limbs
  4. Trouble with coordinating the hand
  5. Loss of sexual ability: the person would have problems with sexual functions.
  6. Weakness in the lower limbs that causes the foot to limp (foot drop)
  7. Loss of bladder or bowel control: the person may not be able to control when they want to defecate or urinate and they would be doing it on their body. You need to be patient with them and understand them.
  8. Severe pain that affects one or both legs making it difficult to get up or move around.
  9. Numbness in the lower limbs: you cannot feel any sensation in your legs.

Treatment of Spinal cord Compression

Treatment will depend on the cause made. Options include drugs, surgery, physiotherapy.

  • Surgery is usually the last choice.
  • Medicines include NSAIDS which are pain killers that relieve pain.
  • Physiotherapy involves exercises that strengthen your back, leg and abdominal muscles. Neck braces also help in strengthening neck muscles.
  • Surgical treatments involve widening the outlets, removing tumors, pus collections, bone spurs all of which in turn reduces the pressure on the spinal cord.

Your doctor would advise you on the best therapy for you.

Prevention of Spinal Cord Compression

Can Spinal Cord Compression be Prevented?
Yes it can to a large extent. Some of the causes of compression are modifiable; hence, adopting a lifestyle that reduces these causes will definitely help. They include:

Regular exercise: this strengthens the muscles of your back and limbs and improves spinal posture.

Maintain good body posture: sit on properly positioned chairs; get a firm bed; learn to lift weights properly.

Maintain a healthy weight: Excess body weights puts stress on your back and can contribute to symptoms of spinal compression.

Please, do well to prevent spinal cord compression today, as damage to the cord or any part of the brain or nerves are usually permanent.

Feel free to ask any questions you may have, and I would get back to you as soon as I can.


  • Obasi Nnamdi Peter attended the College of Medicine, University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, UNTH, Ituku Ozalla, in Enugu State Nigeria.

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