What Is Spinal Cord Compression? Everything to Know

Medically Reviewed By Seunggu Han, M.D.
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Spinal cord compression occurs when something squeezes the spinal cord and causes a disruption in nerve-to-nerve signaling throughout your body. Common causes include injury and conditions that put pressure on the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a thick bundle of nerves that runs down your spinal column. It connects your brain with all the different structures in your body.

Compression of the spinal cord often results from injury. As such, people who play contact sports have a higher risk of spinal cord compression. Pressure can also build over time due to other conditions, such as osteoarthritis. Because of this, older adults may also be at higher risk of spinal cord compression.

Read on to find out more about the causes of spinal cord compression. This article also discusses spinal cord compression symptoms, treatment options, when to contact a doctor, and more.

What causes spinal cord compression?

Spinal cord compression

Any condition that puts pressure on the spinal cord can cause spinal cord compression.

Some of the most common causes of spinal cord compression include:

Injury

Injury can cause acute spinal cord compression, which happens suddenly within minutes or hours.

A back injury can cause a fracture or dislocation of the back vertebrae, and the vertebrae can put pressure on the spinal cord. Situations that can cause a back injury include:

  • motor accident
  • a fall
  • sporting injury

Spinal fractures can also result from minor injuries if a previous condition has already weakened the bones.

Spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis can cause chronic spinal cord compression as it develops over months or years.

Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the spinal canal, which compresses the spinal cord. This condition is called lumbar stenosis when it affects the lower back. Cervical stenosis is when it affects the upper back near the neck. Lumbar stenosis is more common, as the lower back carries more weight than the upper back.

Spinal stenosis can happen as a result of wear and tear. It may also be a complication of osteoarthritis, scoliosis, or genetic diseases.

Learn about spinal stenosis.

Abscess

An abscess is an accumulation of pus. When it forms around the spinal cord, it can cause compression. This usually develops over days or weeks, resulting in subacute spinal cord compression.

Occasionally, an abscess can cause acute compression.

Learn more about abscesses.

Spinal hematoma

A hematoma is an accumulation of blood. A hematoma around the spinal cord often results from injury. However, spinal cord hematomas can also result from:

  • abnormal blood vessel formation
  • bleeding disorders
  • anticoagulants, which are medications to prevent blood clotting

Subacute spinal cord compression from a subdural or epidural hematoma can take days or weeks to develop.

A spontaneous epidural hematoma can cause acute spinal cord compression in rare cases.

Learn more about hematoma.

Herniated disc

herniated disc typically compresses the spinal nerve roots, causing spinal nerve compression. However, it can also put pressure on the spinal cord.

A cervical herniated disc can cause subacute spinal cord compression. In rare cases, it can occur due to a thoracic herniated disc.

Learn more about herniated discs.

Tumor

A tumor may cause spinal cord compression when cancer metastasizes from the spinal bone into the epidural space. This is the part of the spinal canal closest to the skin.

In rare cases, a tumor may form inside the spinal cord. Compression from a tumor usually develops over time, either within days or months.

Learn more about spinal cord tumors.

What are the symptoms of spinal cord compression?

Spinal cord compression symptoms may come on suddenly or gradually, depending on the cause of the pressure.

Symptoms of acute spinal cord compression can include:

  • partial paralysis of the legs
  • weakness in the arms and legs
  • decrease and then increase in muscle responses
  • bladder and bowel dysfunction
  • reduced senses
  • extensor plantar responses, where the big toe turns upward and the rest of the toes turn outward when stimulated

Symptoms of subacute or chronic spinal cord compression can include:

  • local back pain
  • back pain that radiates down the nerve root
  • increase in muscle responses
  • loss of sensation, which can begin in the sacral region between the lower back and the tailbone

What are the treatments for spinal cord compression?

Depending on the cause of spinal cord compression, you may be able to treat it with nonsurgical methods. Your doctor may prescribe corticosteroids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). They may also recommend physical therapy.

Sometimes, surgery may be necessary to relieve pressure on the spinal cord. If the compression occurs suddenly, urgent surgery is necessary to prevent permanent damage to the spinal cord.

Your doctor can recommend treatments and discuss whether they feel surgery is necessary.

When should I see a doctor?

Contact your doctor as soon as you have concerns about spinal cord compression. Beginning treatment as early as possible can help reduce the risk of permanent damage.

Acute spinal cord compression is an emergency that requires immediate diagnosis and treatment. Seek immediate medical help if you experience sudden symptoms of spinal cord compression.

Learn about spinal decompression surgery.

How do doctors diagnose spinal cord compression?

If your doctor suspects spinal cord compression, they will arrange for MRI or CT myelography.

They may arrange for a spinal X-ray if they detect bone anomalies due to trauma.

Your doctor will explain the imaging tests they order and answer any questions you may have.

What are the complications of spinal cord compression?

Without treatment, spinal cord compression can permanently damage the nerves in the spine. This damage can result in long-term disability.

In some cases, spinal cord compression can cause paralysis.

It is important to contact your doctor as soon as possible to reduce the risk of complications.

Can I prevent spinal cord compression?

You may not be able to prevent spinal cord compression resulting from an injury. However, you can take steps to reduce your risk of the condition.

Steps include:

  • exercising regularly to strengthen your back muscles and support your spine
  • using proper protective gear while participating in high risk sports or activities
  • lifting heavy objects properly by bending and lifting with the knees

Summary

Spinal cord compression results from back injuries or conditions that gradually compress the spinal cord over time.

Symptoms of spinal cord compression include pain, loss of sensation, and changes in muscle responses. Your doctor may prescribe medication to help manage your symptoms. However, some cases may require surgery to relieve pressure on the spine.

Acute spinal cord compression is a medical emergency. If you develop symptoms of spinal cord compression quickly over minutes or hours, seek immediate medical care.

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Medical Reviewer: Seunggu Han, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Oct 28
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