Is It Spinal Stenosis or Vascular Claudication?

Medically Reviewed

The pain of spinal stenosis may be confused with that of another condition, vascular claudication.

This condition produces a cramping pain in the buttocks, thighs, or calves caused by impaired blood flow to the legs due to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). The two conditions can be distinguished from each other, however, by the pattern of the pain.

Pain due to vascular claudication stops quickly when you rest, even in the standing position. By comparison, pain due to spinal stenosis is related to body position and may continue for as long as you remain standing. Bending forward or sitting down usually relieves the pain.

Another tip for telling the two conditions apart: Individuals with vascular claudication have pain that starts in their feet or calves that radiates up toward their back and buttocks, whereas people with spinal stenosis have pain that starts in their back and buttocks and radiates down toward their feet.

Bed rest may increase spinal stenosis pain by exaggerating the natural curve of the lower back, which puts more pressure on the spinal nerves. A person with spinal stenosis may feel more comfortable when sitting in a forward-leaning position, which flexes the lower spine and relieves some of the pressure on the nerves.

Likewise, when people with spinal stenosis stand, they may be more comfortable leaning slightly forward. Many people with spinal stenosis, for example, tend to lean forward on a shopping cart while buying groceries. As the condition worsens, pain may occur while sitting, or it may wake the person at night.

Read more about back pain warning signs.