Best Exercises for Spinal Stenosis

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Group of seniors doing cat cow yoga exercise

Spinal stenosis most commonly occurs due to degenerative disease of the spine, which is why it mainly affects people over age 50. Decades of wear and tear to the spinal column and loss of muscle tone due to aging can put you at risk for the pain, numbness, or tingling that comes from spinal canal stenosis. Spinal stenosis occurs when openings in the vertebrae (backbone) become narrowed due to bone spurs, a herniated disc, or some other condition.

Spinal stenosis can occur anywhere along the backbone, but it most often affects the lower (lumbar) portion of the back. Fortunately, you can relieve the pain of spinal stenosis and possibly even prevent degenerative changes to the spine by regularly engaging in exercises designed to improve flexibility and muscle strength.

Physical Therapy for Spinal Stenosis Can Relieve Pain

Physical therapy (PT) represents a first-line treatment for mild to moderate cases of spinal stenosis and has been shown to be effective at relieving pain symptoms especially for lumbar stenosis. Spinal stenosis exercises can be completed with a physical therapist or in the privacy of your own home. Exercises for spinal stenosis require no equipment, aside from perhaps a yoga mat.

Aside from PT exercises, your doctor may recommend other spinal stenosis treatment options like over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (ibuprofen, naproxen), hot or cold packs to the affected area several times a day, or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to teach you techniques for managing the mental aspects of chronic pain.

Flexibility and Strengthening Exercises for Spinal Stenosis

Exercises for spinal stenosis generally fall into two main categories: stretching to improve flexibility and exercises to improve muscle strength, especially in the core (abdomen) and hips. Your physical therapist may have you stretch at the beginning and end of an exercise session, or you may devote entire sessions to stretching alone. Yoga makes an excellent choice for treating spinal stenosis, as it incorporates both stretching and strengthening movements.

Before you begin any exercise session, you should take a few minutes to warm up your body by walking on a treadmill (or around your home) and by gently stretching your large muscle groups (legs, back). Once you’ve warmed up for 10 minutes or so, you can proceed to the actual exercises. You should discontinue any exercise or stretch that worsens your symptoms for longer than a few minutes. Exercise may naturally cause some discomfort and muscle soreness, but if a movement greatly increases your pain or worsens any numbness or tingling, stop doing it immediately.

Best Exercises for Spinal Stenosis You Can Do at Home

To improve your spinal stenosis symptoms, focus on strengthening your core (abdominal), hip, and back muscles with these exercises.

Cat Cow Pose

This yoga pose offers gentle stretching to warm you up. Get on your hands and knees on a mat. While breathing, arch your back and extend your neck while raising your gaze to the ceiling. Hold for 10 seconds, then bring your head down and your chin toward your chest while simultaneously bringing your abdomen up and rounding your back like a cat stretching. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat these movements 10 or more times.

Lower Back Release

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Contract your abdominal muscles to pull the navel (belly button) toward the spine and flatten the lower back to the floor. Hold for five to 10 seconds, then release. Be sure to breathe while performing this exercise. Repeat up to 20 times.

Knee to Chest Movement

While lying on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, exhale and gently pull one knee to your chest. Hold for 10 seconds, then return your foot to the floor and repeat with the other leg. Next, exhale and gently pull both knees toward your chest. You can loop a towel behind your thigh and raise your leg with it if you cannot easily reach and grasp your knee. Hold for 10 seconds and return to the starting position. Repeat the sequence 10 times.

Bridge Exercise

Lie on the floor with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Position your arms at your sides, with palms down. As you exhale, raise your hips off the floor and push them toward the ceiling to create a slope from your knees to your chest. While continuing to breathe, hold the pose for up to 30 seconds, then return to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.

Lumbar Extension

Stand with your feet together and bring your hands together over your head. Gently reach your hands backwards while arching your back without causing pain. Hold for one minute, then slowly stand upright and bring your hands to your sides. Repeat 10 times.

Shoulder Rounding

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet slightly apart. Place your arms at your sides with palms down. As you exhale, raise your head and slightly roll your shoulders up from the floor or mat while stretching your arms toward your feet. Hold for 10 seconds, then return to the starting position. Repeat 10 to 20 times per session.

You don’t have to become a “gym rat” to improve your spinal stenosis symptoms with exercise. Spending just 15 minutes a day performing gentle exercises in the privacy of your own home can bring you relief from the pain, tingling, and numbness of lumbar stenosis.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Apr 6
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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