Spinal stenosis can cause nerve root irritation or compression leading to painful sciatica symptoms. Spinal stenosis is a condition caused by constriction or narrowing of the nerve’s passage.
When considering treatment for spinal stenosis, exercises that emphasize forward bending (flexion of the spine) are often suggested by spine specialists and physical therapists. Treating spinal stenosis using flexion of the spine increases the amount of room in the spinal canal allowing for the irritated nerve to decompress and the pain to be resolved. For this reason, you will often see someone suffering from spinal stenosis bent forward on a cane, walker, or even a shopping cart.
Exercises for spinal stenosis and maintaining a strong back
There are two groups of exercises we can focus on to help strengthen and maintain your backs health.
Strengthening - Through repetition of muscle contractions the muscle becomes stronger.
Flexibility - Lengthening of muscles over an extended period of time.
NOTE: It is advised that you speak to your general health care provider or physical therapist prior to undertaking strenuous new exercise.
Strengthening exercises for spinal stenosis
Increasing the tone in your muscles and developing a stronger abdominal core can lead to a more stable spine. With strengthened leg muscles you will find it easier to use proper lifting techniques that are designed to help prevent back injury and promote a healthy spine for life.
Instructions - Lay down on your back with your arms at your side. Bend your knees slightly and tilt your pelvis to flatten your back. Raise your shoulders and head until your should blades clear the floor, hold for a count of five seconds. Repeat this 10 times.
Trunk raises (oblique)
Instructions - Lay down with your back flat against the floor. While raising your head reach with one hand and bring one of your shoulders towards the opposite hip. Hold this for five seconds and repeat ten times. Switch sides and repeat for another ten repetitions.
Trunk raises (prone)
Instructions - Lay on the floor, face down in a prone position with your arms beside your body. With your buttocks tightened, raise your head and shoulders straight up from the floor until you can’t comfortably go any higher. Hold this position for five seconds and repeat it ten times.
Alternate arm/leg lift (prone)
Instructions - With your arms outstretched above your head, lay face down on the floor with a towel rolled up and placed under your forehead. Position a pillow so that it is under your pelvis and abdomen. While keeping your right knee straight, lift your leg an inch or two from the floor, along with your left arm. Hold this position for five seconds. Repeat ten times while alternating sides.
Flexibility exercises for spinal stenosis
A persons flexibility is improved by stretching, and the more flexible the person, the more range of motion they will have. A higher level of flexibility around the spine and the pelvis allows for normal spine movement, decreasing the risk factors for injury by preventing abnormal force on joints. A vigorous workout places a lot of force on your muscles and by warming up or stretching them first; you prepare them, helping to avoid injury. When stretching, it is important to complete each exercise slowly and without jerking or bouncing through each motion.
Instructions - Lay down with your back to the floor. Raise one of your legs, and while supporting the back of the thigh with your hands attempt to straighten your knee. Hold this stretch until you feel it in the back of your thigh for twenty to thirty seconds, but be sure to stay comfortable. Release and repeat with your other leg. 3 repetitions.
Double knee to chest
Instructions - Lay down straight with your back against the floor. Using a smooth motion while avoiding bouncing or jerking, pull both knees towards your chest until you feel a comfortable stretch in your lower back. Hold this stretch for five seconds. 5 repetitions.
Standing backward bend
Instructions - While standing straight with your hands on your hips, bend backwards. While keeping your balance, arch your back until you feel a comfortable stretch. Hold this position for five seconds. 5 repetitions.
Instructions - While grasping an object with one hand for balance, bend your leg while raising your foot up behind your thigh. Grip the top of your foot and gently bring it towards your buttock until you feel a comfortable stretch in the front of your thigh. Hold the stretch for 20 - 30 seconds and repeat for the other leg. 3 repetitions.
Pain felt during exercise for spinal stenosis
If while performing any of these spinal stenosis exercises, there is an increase in pain in your legs, do not ignore it. Stop the activity you are doing and get advice from your health care provider or physical therapist.
Unfortunately many people will not feel relief from strengthening or stretching their core muscles. For many people the degeneration factor has already set in or an anomaly such as a bone spur is already playing a contributing factor in their spinal stenosis. At this point you have few choices available to you. You can either live with your spinal stenosis by making changes to your activities or lifestyle, or you can explore further possibilities such as surgery with your health care provider. For detailed information on spinal stenosis surgery and to help educate yourself further about the risks and benefits, we suggest you look at our spinal stenosis surgery page where we cover this topic in greater detail.