If you suffer from spinal stenosis, you know how this pain can affect your life every day. Spinal stenosis is a debilitating condition that causes excruciating pain to radiate from the lower back down the legs. It causes more pain while standing, rather than sitting. And, this pain is sometimes so intense as to make your daily life impossible. The best course of treatment you can find is a comprehensive pain management plan that addresses both acute symptoms of pain as well as the underlying cause. Even as you and your doctor work through a proper diagnosis and more interventional options, there are spinal stenosis exercises and stretches that can help. We’ll be focusing on low-impact activities to reduce pain, spinal stenosis exercises to strengthen the core, and stretches to relieve tension.
How to get started with spinal stenosis exercises
It’s important to note that these spinal stenosis exercises should only be done after a thorough consultation with your doctor. Improper exercise can cause more pain and may make the condition worse. High impact activities or activities that require you to stand for long periods of time could also cause more pain.
Additionally, the saying “no pain, no gain” does not apply here. These spinal stenosis exercises are meant to gradually and gently build strength and foster flexibility. Trying to gain strength while bones are pressing into a nerve may be next to impossible. The best spinal stenosis exercises either reduce tension through light stretching or activity, or help strengthen the core.
Further, while isolated exercises like these can help increase flexibility and strengthen the muscles supporting the spine, some of the best spinal stenosis exercises work to increase strength and flexibility in the whole body. Low-impact exercises can help relieve pain and add length and strength to the spine. The supportive nature of these types of spinal stenosis exercises allows virtually anyone to access their benefits. These best ones include:
- Slow-moving tai chi
- Shorter and frequent walks, as long walks can exacerbate pain
Remember that talking to your doctor is the first step in deciding which spinal stenosis exercises are right for you. Working through pain and pushing too hard can result in further injury, so take your time and listen to your body as you exercise.
Core strengthening exercises
When people feel pain, their first inclination is often to stretch the area. However, many times pain develops from muscle weakness, and stretching exacerbates the problem. One possible solution then is to build core strength through yoga.
Back pain is probably the most common example of this tendency, and it’s one of the best candidates for relief through yoga. Most types of back pain, including spinal stenosis, result from some combination of poor posture and sedentary living. By incorporating specific strengthening and stretching exercises into your routine, you could very well substantially reduce your pain. This process of stretching and strengthening core strength creates balance, reducing pain in areas of chronic discomfort, but also helping to rehabilitate injured muscles.
The core muscles include those in the abdomen and back, however the core muscles aren’t just the superficial muscles that give a person six-pack abs. They’re also the muscles deep inside the body that, when strong, support the spine and hold the central core of the body together. Because many of these muscles lie so deep within the body, common exercises like crunches, that work only the top layer of stomach muscles, don’t work the core. We’ll explore some of those that do later in this post.
15 spinal stenosis exercises
1. Back flexion
Stretching the back can help bring space between the vertebrae to offer pain relief. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Inhale deeply, then on an exhale, bring your knees into your chest and wrap your arms around them. Breathe deeply and hold this position for 30 seconds. Release and repeat four to six times.
If placing your feet on the floor with knees bent is too painful, this exercise can also be completed while lying on the side in the fetal position.
2. Child’s pose with arms extended
Come to hands and knees with toes untucked, hands directly beneath your shoulders and knees below your hips. Aim your tailbone towards the wall behind you and the crown of your head to the wall in front of you. You should feel your low belly and abdomen engage when you complete these two actions. Inhale deeply, and on a long, slow exhale, sink your hips back to your heels, keeping your arms extended out in front of you. You can open your knees wide, bringing your toes to touch if that feels more comfortable, or you can keep your thighs together.
If you feel pain or pressure on your knees as you sink back, place a folded blanket or a pillow behind your knees. You can also place a block between your ankles to lift your hips up but still allow you to rest. With each exhale, let your chest sink down towards the ground, resting either on your thighs or between your thighs if your knees are apart.
Breathe into this stretch for five deep breaths, then slowly rise up. Repeat for pain relief as needed, four to six times per day.
This spinal stenosis exercise can be completed standing, seated, or on all fours. Whichever you choose, let your breath initiate each movement.
Standing: Stand with feet slightly wider than hip’s width distance. Bend your knees slightly and place your hands just above your knees. On an inhale, push your sitting bones out behind you like you are trying to close a drawer as your chest comes forward between your arms and your raise your face to the sky. Exhale and drop your tailbone down, as you push out of your hands and arch your upper back like a Halloween cat.
Seated: Sit comfortably on a chair with feet flat on the ground, tailbone reaching down to the floor beneath the chair and crown of the head reaching to the sky. Place your hands on your knees, and on an inhale, stretch your sitting bones up and back as your chest reaches through your arms, curving your lumbar spine. Exhale and push away from your knees as you curl your tailbone under, arching your upper back.
All fours: Start on hands and knees with hands directly beneath shoulders and knees below hips. Inhale and let your belly drop towards the ground as you open your chest forward and lift your face to the sky. Exhale, curving your tailbone down and forward as you push the floor beneath you away and arch your back.
Whichever position you choose, make the movement as fluid and slow as you can, following your breath. Aim for five complete rounds of cat/cow twice daily. The following video shows how to do this pose safely.
4. Easy abdominal work
Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Inhale deeply. On the exhale, press your navel towards the floor, contracting the muscles of your abdomen. Hold your breath out (and this contraction) for ten seconds, then release. Complete this exercise five to ten times.
Full sit-ups put too much pressure on the spine and are often performed incorrectly in a way that doesn’t provide much benefit. Curl-ups work the muscles of the lower abdomen without placing excess strain on the lower back.
Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Cross your arms over your chest. On an exhale and with a flat back, raise just your head and shoulders off the floor and hold for three seconds. Lower on the inhale. It is important to maintain a strong, supported back in this exercise, so think of letting your heart lead the movement instead of pushing with your lower back. As your strength increases, aim for two to four sets of ten curl-ups each.
The following video from Elder Gym gives an example of how to do this safely.
6. Tiger pose
When rehabilitating an injury, it’s important to both stretch and strengthen. While muscle weakness may have contributed to the original trauma, weakness undoubtedly develops while the body rests as it heals. Yoga is particularly good for developing this balance of strength and flexibility. This deceptively simple posture gently stretches and strengthens the back while firing up the core. It’s a foundational posture in yoga, used in many beginner classes and is an excellent way to warm up the body for more rigorous postures at any level.
- Come to all fours, with the knees underneath the hips and wrists underneath the shoulders. Line the wrists up to the front edge of the mat, spread the fingers wide, and press firmly down into the base of your index finger.
- Inhale and reach the right leg straight behind you. If it feels good, extend the left arm, as well.
- Exhale, round the back and bring the knee toward the forehead. If using the arms, connect the elbow to the knee. Inhale and return to starting position.
- Repeat this exercise five to seven times before switching to the other side.
Keep in mind that some yoga postures may stress the back or other areas of pain in your body. Practice with care and only do those exercises that feel good.
7-10. Spinal stenosis exercises
These three exercises for spinal stenosis from Superior Physical Therapy is an informative video. In it, they demonstrate a few movements that can help reduce your symptoms.
11. Triangle pose
This standing pose stretches and strengthens the hamstrings while building core strength. Although one hand grazes the floor in the full expression of the pose, that hand ideally bears no weight. A good way to keep the core engaged is to leave the fingers dangling a few centimeters off the floor. Engaging the core in this way, triangle pose becomes a strong core-building posture.
- Stand tall at the front of the mat, feet firmly pressing into the ground. Step a few feet back with the right foot, lining the back edge of the foot up to the back edge of the mat.
- Line the front heel up with the arch of the back foot.
- Inhale, lift the arms up parallel to the floor, keeping the legs straight. Exhale and reach forward before lowering the left arm down toward the floor. If the floor is far away, feel free to rest the fingers on a block or the shin. To amplify the core-building effects, don’t rest the fingers on anything, instead engaging the core fully to maintain the body’s position.
- Stay here and breathe, keeping the heart open and torso long, as if pressing your body against an imaginary pane of glass behind you. Take five to seven breaths and then do the other side.
12. Front and side plank
Planks are another foundational posture, this is an excellent gentle, yet fiery way to build core strength. If you have weak wrists, you can use your elbows to prop you up during these poses, or use one or both knees on the ground if staying up is too difficult. The most important thing in these spinal stenosis exercises is to keep the core firm and your back straight.
- Start on all fours, hips over knees and shoulders over wrists. Straighten one leg and then the other, tucking the toes under your feet, so your body forms a long line.
- Engage through the abdomen and core, hugging the body in so it doesn’t sag. It’s common for people to dip the hips or lift them up too high to make the posture easier. Aim for a solid, straight line. You may want to practice in front of a mirror or with a friend to ensure proper form.
- Stay here and breathe for 30 seconds, working up to as long as three minutes.
To move into a side plank:
- Start from a plank position, with the wrists underneath the shoulders and legs straight behind you, toes tucked under.
- Shift your weight onto the right hand and outer edge of the right foot, turning the body so it’s perpendicular to the floor.
- Stack the left foot on top of the right, or place it on the ground while keeping both legs straight. A modification is to bend the left knee and place the foot on the ground in front of your right knee.
- Lift the left arm up to the sky, keeping the gaze on the floor or gently turning the neck to gaze at the sky. Whichever option you choose, make sure it feels good in the neck.
- Stay here for three to five breaths. Repeat on the other side.
13-15. Physical therapy exercises for spinal stenosis
Finally, this great video from a pair of physical therapists shows three spinal stenosis exercises and techniques you can use to help ease your pain.