Cervical spinal stenosis (CSS) is a condition characterized by the narrowing of the spaces within the spine through which the spinal cord and the nerves pass. The condition becomes more common with age, affecting 6.8% of adults over age 50 and 9% of those over age 70. While it’s not unusual for a CSS patient to be asymptomatic, a sudden injury to neck tissues can compress, constrict, or injure the spinal cord (or associated nerves) and result in symptoms such as pain, numbness, and/or tingling along the course of that nerve that can affect physical function over time.
It’s estimated that more than two million Americans sustain a whiplash injury each year, with automobile collisions being the primary cause. In a June 2023 study, researchers used a previously validated three-dimensional model of the human head-neck complex to assess the risk for spinal cord injury with CSS of varying sizes (from 14 mm to 6 mm—a lower number is worse) with rear-impact acceleration of both 1.8 m/s and 2.6 m/s. At the C5-6 level of the cervical spine, which sits toward the bottom of the neck, the stress on the spinal cord was enough to cause injury at both accelerations with a stenosis of 6 mm. However, for the less severe 8 mm stenosis, only 2.6 m/s acceleration applied sufficient forces to injure the spinal cord. In general, the authors surmised that the narrower the opening for the nerve/spinal cord to pass through, the less force needed to reach the threshold for spinal cord injury.
Aside from genetics, the risk factors for CSS include cumulative trauma, osteoporosis, cigarette smoking, and degenerative joint disease/osteoarthritis—all of which can affect the ability of the tissues of the neck to absorb the forces stemming from the sudden acceleration and deceleration during a rear-end collision, leading to a potentially more severe injury, which may require a more comprehensive treatment approach to reduce the risk for ongoing, chronic symptoms. The good news is that doctors of chiropractic offer an excellent conservative treatment option for managing both cervical spinal stenosis and whiplash injuries.
While it may not be possible to fully prevent CSS, there are measures one can take to reduce their risk for developing the condition. This includes eating a healthy diet, getting regular weight-bearing exercise, getting good sleep, not smoking, avoiding excessive alcohol intake, and avoiding the risk factors for metabolic syndrome including obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and dyslipidemia. A 2018 study found a link between worse spinal posture and spinal stenosis, so maintaining good posture and getting regular chiropractic care to keep the spine aligned may also lower the risk for CSS!