Spinal Stenosis and Leg Cramps

by LMatthews on January 21, 2013

leg cramps and spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis and pinched nerves are just one cause of leg cramps.

Spinal stenosis describes a condition of narrowing in the spine and this narrowing can result in spinal nerves becoming pinched or trapped. As a consequence of spinal stenosis, leg cramps may arise because the nerves controlling the muscles in the legs may be compressed as the spinal spaces narrow. Solving the riddle of nocturnal leg cramps may then involve an MRI of the spine.

Lumbar Spinal Stenosis and Leg Cramps

Cervical spinal stenosis is more likely to give rise to headaches, arm pains, and even problems with speech, respiration and swallowing but leg cramps and leg pains are a common consequence of lumbar spinal stenosis. Pinched nerves in the lower back can cause back pain when sitting, standing, walking or even when simply lying down. Bending forwards often relieves the pain by opening up the spaces in the spine to relieve the nerves. Some physicians refer to this phenomenon as ‘shopping cart syndrome’ as many people find it helpful to lean forward onto such a support.

Neurogenic vs. Vascular Claudication

Oftentimes, there is confusion between neurogenic claudication, causing leg cramps from spinal stenosis, and vascular problems, where poor circulation to the lower limbs is the issue. If the cause is neurogenic and connected to spinal nerves then the possibility of back surgery helping is high. Indeed, many patients report back surgery relieving leg pain and cramps more so than relieving back pain itself. However, undergoing spinal surgery when the cause is actually vascular will provide little, if any relief. Physicians must, therefore, work with patients to determine the real underlying cause of symptoms.

Pain Medication Side-Effects and Leg Cramps

One potential cause of leg cramps in patients with back pain is sometimes overlooked in light of the fact that the two sets of symptoms so frequently have their root in pinched nerves and spinal stenosis. This possible cause is the very medications that patients take for back pain relief. Nocturnal leg cramps, restless legs and leg pain when walking may be a result of increased water retention caused by some steroid medications. It may even be the result of electrolyte imbalance, with poor magnesium, calcium, sodium and potassium status resulting from the effects of medications for pain relief. Where patients begin to notice leg cramps shortly after beginning a new kind of pain relief medication it is important to address the issue with a physician to rule out unwanted side-effects as the cause.

Spinal Stenosis, Leg Cramps and Exercise

An additional contributor to leg pain and leg cramps in spinal stenosis is the fact that many patients become stressed and, unintentionally, begin to lead more sedentary lifestyles, worried that activity will hurt their back further. It has been found, however, that engaging in an active lifestyle is one of the best ways to relieve back pain and improve chances of recovery from back problems, although the type of activity obviously needs choosing carefully. Lack of exercise can weaken muscles and reduce overall health and emotional well-being. This can, in turn, cause an increased risk of injury in the lower limbs, weakness, and depression and a higher susceptibility to pain. The link between spinal stenosis and leg cramps is complex and may take time to unravel, but once the cause is found it may be quite simple to rectify.


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