Exercises for spinal stenosis are most effective when they include flexion (bending forward). This is a pain relieving position for the condition. You can accomplish safe spinal flexion with bodyweight support bands and a kitchen counter if you are just starting. Various research studies have examined the effectiveness of exercise on lumbar spinal stenosis and have concluded that core stability exercises are the most beneficial for pain relief, equally as effective as surgery! So which would you rather try? Let’s learn more.
I always find that my patients are much more successful with sticking to an exercise program when they know WHY they are actually doing them. Need the reasons why you should exercise with arthritis? For example, would you eat peas if you didn’t know they were good for you? Yuck, I know I wouldn’t! So why would you exercise if you didn’t know why it was helping? Let’s learn a little more about spinal stenosis first.
Why should I being doing exercises for spinal stenosis?
Spinal stenosis can commonly be found in the back or in the neck. You may notice nerve symptoms that include: numbness, tingling, burning, shooting pain, and/or crawling along your arms or legs. Usually this pain comes on gradually and can be changed in certain positions. This could be a sign that you have spinal stenosis.
Spinal stenosis doesn’t necessarily have a cure and many times, surgery may not correct the issue. It is best to catch it early and get an evaluation by a physical therapist. If it is movement related, surgery may not be necessary in the first place! I have known clients with a diagnosis of spinal stenosis who have been able to find pain relief with an in-depth assessment and personalized plan- the best part, without surgery!
So what causes this?! Spinal stenosis is typically caused by excessive extension. This means you have a more pronounced curve in your lower back or neck (common places for spinal stenosis). This could be for an anatomical reason or related to postures you have spent a lot of time in. An increased curve can cause irritation to the nerves. Here are some examples of how this can happen:
- osteoarthritis of the spine or degenerative disc disease as it leads to changes in how you spine moves which can lead to muscle imbalances
- excessive weight distribution in abdominal region
- chronic disc herniation or bulge
So we know this curve can lead to irritation on our nerves. Because of this, most pain is felt spending time in that extended position which typically includes standing and walking. There is good news though! Exercises for spinal stenosis have been proven to be equally as effective as surgery. If you were to opt to get surgery, your outcomes (pain, function afterwards) are likely very similar to if you had gone to physical therapy or started an exercise program. Take a look at this research:
“Exercises can increase the activation of [muscles around your spine], improve stability and coordination of [your spine], improve lumbar lordosis angle and adjust the lumbar alignment and subsequently it can result in the relief of nerve compression, and the symptoms including pain and disability are improved in patients with [spinal stenosis]”Mo et al. 2018
But if the results are the same, should I just get surgery? Don’t be so quick. Now exercise doesn’t work for everyone but the fact that outcomes can actually be the same is an incredible finding. Think about it this way. Surgery comes with a very high risk, especially when dealing with your spine. Entails long recovery, high pain levels post op, and the need for exercise afterwards for healing. When completing exercise there almost no risks and an incredible opportunity for benefit. If you are going to have to go through the recovery anyways with exercise, should we just try starting there? This same study found:
“Compared with exercise therapy, lumbar decompressive laminectomies can relieve pain immediately, but it can’t strengthen the power of the muscles and flexibility of the joints. In addition, surgical procedures may damage the paravertebral muscles, decrease muscle power and adversely effect lumbar alignment”Mo et al. 2018
Our muscles are extremely important to support our spine. We have to give them the attention they need. We can do this through specific exercises that promote optimal positioning of our spine and the right amount of stability to decrease the nerve compression.
What exercises do I need for spinal stenosis?
Take a look at these tips first and these exercises will make much more sense. Remember, these exercises for spinal stenosis will depend on how severe your condition is. If one of these exercises doesn’t work for you, its okay. There are thousands of exercises out there you can try. We just put all the best ones in one place!
From these tips we now know a couple of ways we can give our body the support it needs when beginning to exercise with spinal stenosis:
- using a kitchen counter or other stable support surface
- using bodyweight support suspension bands, or TRX bands (these are my favorite)
Now, here are 3 exercises you should start with to teach your body how to move again. We start with the right amount of support, move away from the support when we are able to complete successfully then finish by adding weight to the movements. One of my patients just went through this exact sequence, had been dealing with pain from spinal stenosis for the past 5 years. he found RELIEF. He feels as though he is moving better than he did 20 years ago.
Exercise 1: Supported squat
Grab a kitchen counter, or these exercise straps for the best results. When we squat, our instinct is to bend our knees first and keep our chest upright. We should be squatting bending at the hips first then bending at the knees. With exercises for spinal stenosis, we want to be conscious about avoiding excessively arching our back and this support can help with that! Complete 8-12 reps to get started, going down as low as is comfortable. We are focusing on form over quantity when beginning.
Exercise 2: Supported forward plank
In order to prevent excessive arching at our back and to build up our core muscles, the plank is a great way to do that. You can start on a supported surface and progress to a lower surface to make more difficult. This video shows the most difficult variation first along with how you can modify it as well.
You have to focus on keeping your hips up and trying not to let your chest sag. Push through your shoulders. Form is KEY to getting the most out of this exercise. Try to hold for 20-30 seconds to start with a goal of maintaining good form and holding for up to 60 seconds. Once you master 60 seconds, move to a lower surface.
Exercise 3: Forward and backwards walking
When doing this exercise, avoid leaning backwards while moving. Make sure you are tucking your hips underneath you and using your glute muscles! You can add a resistance band to make this exercise harder. Walking backwards is one of the best exercises for spinal stenosis as you naturally lean forward while doing it and use your hip muscles that are vital to helping support your spine!
Try to complete 5-6 steps each direction, the longer you go in one direction, the more fatigued your muscles will get, hence making the exercise more difficult. Try to complete this exercise for 30 seconds to begin then increase the time as you are able.
Exercise is powerful
These three exercises are a great start to building support for your spine and controlling your spinal curve like we talked about in the beginning. There is hope if you have spinal stenosis. Hope for pain relief without having to go through surgery. These are just the start. We have to continue to progress, continue to build up our muscle support.
If you are looking for more exercise options, here are the best 11 exercises you can try if you have degenerative disc disease. If you want to truly unlock pain relief, finding the right exercises that your body loves is crucial. There are so many options out there, no sense in spending time doing things your body doesn’t like!
In order to get the most benefit, you have to believe pain relief is possible. You deserve this! Going into trying these exercises with the mindset “this won’t work” or “there’s nothing I can do for my pain” is not the way to approach it. Keeping an open mind is VITAL. You are holding yourself back with these types of thoughts.
I have had multiple patients that have had success with these exercises and I truly believe that you can to! Exercise is not the only piece, as diet and lifestyle choices also play a huge role. If we can start with one of them though, pain relief is that much closer. Remember, you can do this. You have to start small, don’t try to do everything at once.
If you are looking for further pain relief motivation, check out this FREE ebook on the Top 5 Secrets to Getting Rid of Joint Pain Forever and download it today!
Dr. Alyssa Kuhn is a physical therapist and arthritis specialist with Keep the Adventure Alive. She has helped arthritis sufferers all over the country finally break free from their pain without surgery or more pills. She has lots of adventures she loves like hiking, biking, and skiing. She wants you to have adventures too! There is such a lack of positive and optimistic information out there about arthritis and Dr. Alyssa is on a mission to change that once and for all.
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Reference: Mo Z, Zhang R, Chang M, Tang S. Exercise therapy versus surgery for lumbar spinal stenosis: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Pak J Med Sci. 2018 Jul-Aug;34(4):879-885. doi: 10.12669/pjms.344.14349. PMID: 30190746; PMCID: PMC6115590.