Occult lumbar lateral spinal stenosis in neural foramina subjected to physiologic loading

Bruce H. Nowicki, Victor M. Haughton, Timothy A. Schmidt, Tae Hong Lim, Howard S. An, Lee H. Riley, Liyuan Yu, Jung Wha Hong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

85 Scopus citations


PURPOSE: To measure the effect of extension, flexion, lateral bending, and axial rotation loads applied to the spine on the anatomic relationship of the spinal nerves in the neural foramen to the ligamentum flavum and the intervertebral disk; and to determine the effect of disk degeneration on the response to loading. METHODS: Cadaveric lumbar motion segments were examined with CT and MR imaging, loaded with pure moment forces, frozen in situ, reexamined with CT, and sectioned with a cryomicrotome. The morphology of the intervertebral disks was classified on the basis of the appearance of the cryomicrotome sections. The neural foramina were classified as having no evident stenosis, as being stenotic, as having occult stenosis, or as showing resolved stenosis on the basis of the images and sections before and after loading. The stenotic and nonstenotic foramina were stratified by disk level, intervertebral disk classification, and type of loading applied. The effect of spinal level, disk type, and load type on the prevalence of stenosis was studied. RESULTS: On average, extension, flexion, lateral bending, and axial rotation resulted in the ligamentum flavum or intervertebral disk contacting or compressing the spinal nerve in 18% of the neural foramina. Extension loading produced the most cases of nerve root contact, and lateral bending produced the fewest cases. Each of the loading types resulted also in diminished contact between the spinal nerve and the intervertebral disk or ligamentum flavum in some cases. Disk degeneration significantly increased the prevalence of spinal stenosis. All foramina associated with advanced disk degeneration and half of the foramina associated with disks having radial tears of the annulus fibrosus either developed occult stenosis or were stenotic before loading. CONCLUSIONS: The study supports the concept of dynamic spinal stenosis; that is, intermittent stenosis of the neural foramina. Flexion, extension, lateral bending, and axial rotation significantly changed the anatomic relationships of the ligamentum flavum and intervertebral disk to the spinal nerve roots.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1605-1617
Number of pages13
JournalAmerican Journal of Neuroradiology
Issue number9
StatePublished - Oct 1996
Externally publishedYes


  • Foramina, vertebral
  • Nerves, spinal
  • Spine, anatomy
  • Spine, stenosis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Clinical Neurology


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