Spinal Cord Compression
Basic Facts
The spinal cord is responsible for transmitting the impulses between the brain and the rest of the body.
Compression of the spinal cord occurs when something presses on the spinal cord with enough force to block the transmission of signals to and from the body and the brain.
Spinal cord compression can be caused by traumatic injury, neoplasm (tumor), herniated disks, abscesses from infections, or degenerative diseases.
Treatment of spinal cord compression aims to relieve the pressure and restore function.
The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that transmits sensory and motor information between the brain and the rest of the body. The spinal cord is surrounded by the vertebrae, a column of bones that protects the spinal cord from injury. Spinal cord compression occurs when something presses it with enough force to inhibit some or all of the impulses traveling through the spinal cord.

Slowly progressive compression, as with a benign (non-cancerous) tumor growth, may cause minimal or no symptoms for a long time (often years) followed by slower onset (weeks or months) of weakness, numbness, and poor (or loss of) coordination.


Symptoms vary depending on the cause of the compression, its location, and severity, but can include:
  • Back pain at the spinal site of compression;
  • Pain or burning in other parts of the body;
  • Difficulty breathing;
  • Weakness in the arms, legs, or both;
  • Numbness or tingling in the neck, shoulder, arms, hands, or legs;
  • Loss of coordination or difficulty walking;
  • Loss of fine motor skills;
  • Loss of sexual function;
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control; and
  • Paralysis.

The causes of spinal cord compression include:
  • Traumatic injury;
  • Spinal cord tumors;
  • Spinal stenosis;
  • Ruptured disks;
  • Abscesses;
  • Arteriovenous malformations; and
  • Degenerative diseases, such as arthritis.

The tests that physicians use to diagnose spinal compression include:
  • X ray;
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan;
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI);
  • Myelogram;
  • Biopsy; and
  • Blood and spinal fluid studies.

Because spinal cord compression has many causes, treatments vary, but can include:
  • Reduced physical activity;
  • Medications;
  • Epidural steroid injections;
  • Traction;
  • Immobilization;
  • Radiation therapy for spinal tumors;
  • Chemotherapy for spinal tumors; and
  • Physical or exercise therapy for ruptured disks.
If the patient does not respond to nonsurgical treatment, the compression is causing severe neurological symptoms, or symptoms worsen, the physician may recommend surgical procedures to relieve the compression.

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