Symptoms are more likely to be present or get worse when you stand or walk. They often lessen or disappear when you sit down or lean forward. Most people with spinal stenosis cannot walk for a long period.
More serious symptoms include:
Difficulty or poor balance when walking
Problems controlling urine or bowel movements
Exams and Tests
During a physical exam, your doctor will try to find the location of the pain and figure out how it affects your movement. You will be asked to:
Sit, stand, and walk. While you walk, your doctor may ask you to try walking on your toes and then your heels.
Bend forward, backward, and sideways.
Lift your legs straight up while lying down. If the pain is worse when you do this, you may have sciatica, especially if you also feel numbness or tingling in one of your legs.
Your doctor will also move your legs in different positions, including bending and straightening your knees. This is to check your strength and ability to move.
To test nerve function, the doctor uses a rubber hammer to check your reflexes. To test how well your nerves sense feeling, the doctor touches your legs in many places with a pin, cotton swab, or feather.
A brain and nervous system (neurologic) examination helps confirm leg weakness and decreased sensation in the legs. The following tests may be done:
Weinstein JN, Tosteson TD, Lurie JD, et al. Surgical versus nonoperative treatment for lumbar spinal stenosis. Four-year results of the Spine Patient Outcomes Research Trial. Spine. 2010;35:1329-1338.
Chou R, Baisden J, Carragee Ej, Resnick DK, Shaffer WO, Loeser JD. Surgery for low back pain: a review of the evidence for an American Pain Society clinical practice guideline. Spine. 2009;34:1094-1109.
Chou R, Atlas SJ, Stanos SP, Rosenquist RW. Nonsurgical interventional therapies for low back pain: a review of the evidence for an American Pain Society clinical practice guideline. Spine. 2009;34:1078-1093.
C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.