Spinal Stenosis Exercises: What Physical Therapists Recommend for Back Pain Relief

The right mix of exercise therapy can help treat pain and stiffness in your back from spinal stenosis.

Published Date: Jul 12, 2023
older-man-holding-his-lower-back-in-pain-after-waking-up

Spinal Stenosis Exercises: What Physical Therapists Recommend for Back Pain Relief

The right mix of exercise therapy can help treat pain and stiffness in your back from spinal stenosis.

Published Date: Jul 12, 2023
older-man-holding-his-lower-back-in-pain-after-waking-up

Spinal Stenosis Exercises: What Physical Therapists Recommend for Back Pain Relief

The right mix of exercise therapy can help treat pain and stiffness in your back from spinal stenosis.

Published Date: Jul 12, 2023
older-man-holding-his-lower-back-in-pain-after-waking-up

Spinal Stenosis Exercises: What Physical Therapists Recommend for Back Pain Relief

The right mix of exercise therapy can help treat pain and stiffness in your back from spinal stenosis.

Published Date: Jul 12, 2023
older-man-holding-his-lower-back-in-pain-after-waking-up
Table of Contents

If you’ve been told or suspect you have spinal stenosis, it’s normal to feel worried and concerned about how to get relief. 

Here’s what’s going on: Your spinal cord is made up of vertebrae, or bones, that house nerves inside of them. When spaces inside the spinal cord become narrow — a condition called spinal stenosis — there’s more pressure or irritation on these nerves, which can result in lower back pain and stiffness along with tingling or numbness down one or both legs. (Spinal stenosis can also affect your neck, but this article will focus on lumbar spinal stenosis, or narrowing that affects the low back.)

People with spinal stenosis usually experience pain with standing or moving due to the increased nerve irritation. Many treatment options are available, but physical activity is one of the most important ways to deal with spinal stenosis symptoms. 

“With lumbar spinal stenosis, certain positions — such as being upright — can lead to irritation,” says Courteney Kemp, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “Our goal is to help those tissues in your low back tolerate more movement as we slowly build up your mobility, flexibility, and strength.”

Here, learn more about why it’s so important to exercise with spinal stenosis — and the best exercises to improve your symptoms and quality of life, as recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists. 

Our Hinge Health Experts

Courteney Kemp, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Kemp is a Hinge Health physical therapist with a special interest in fall prevention, post-operative orthopedic recovery, neurological rehabilitation, and movement optimism.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

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What Is Spinal Stenosis?

Spinal stenosis occurs when the spaces within the spinal canal narrow, leading to the compression or squeezing of the spinal cord and nerves. The spinal canal is the hollow passageway formed by the vertebrae through which the spinal cord travels. Stenosis can develop in different regions of the spine, including the neck (cervical), upper back (thoracic), or lower back (lumbar).

As the space diminishes, it can put pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots, leading to a range of symptoms. Common signs of spinal stenosis include pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness in the affected area. In the lower back, it can cause lower back pain, leg pain, and weakness. The symptoms of spinal stenosis can vary depending on the severity and location of the narrowing. They may be intermittent or persistent, and they may worsen or improve with certain activities. 

Treatment options vary depending on the severity of the symptoms and their impact on an individual's daily life. Non-surgical treatments such as pain medication, physical therapy, and exercise should be considered as first-line treatment options. In more severe cases, when conservative measures fail to provide adequate relief, surgical intervention, such as decompression surgery or spinal fusion, may be considered to alleviate the pressure on the affected nerves. Talk to your doctor about whether you’re a good candidate for surgery. 

The Importance of Exercise and Movement With Spinal Stenosis

According to Dr. Kemp, people with narrowing in their spinal cords often complain of pain, stiffness, or nerve irritation when they stand, walk, or exercise. On the other hand, it’s common to feel relief from the pain during periods of seated rest. As such, it may seem counterintuitive to use “movement as medicine” for spinal stenosis. But if you have lumbar spinal stenosis, it’s essential to stretch and strengthen your lower back and surrounding muscles to get relief. 

“Exercise can decrease sensitivity to normal daily activities by loosening up tight tissues, reducing pressure on nerves, and increasing range of motion,” says Dr. Kemp. “Exercise also provides strength to your core, hips, and shoulder blade muscles so you have more stability and less discomfort when you move.” 

As one Hinge Health member with spinal stenosis said, “I’m finding that the pain is seeming to slowly decrease after a few weeks of exercise therapy sessions.” Another member reported that their “back is so much better” after doing exercises to help their spinal stenosis and herniated disc. “I think it is possible, if I keep active, that surgery is not in my near future. I just have to keep on keeping on!” they shared.

Mobility Exercises for Spinal Stenosis

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  • Pelvic Tilts
  • Seated Knee-to-Chest
  • Child's Pose

Strengthening Exercises for Spinal Stenosis

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  • Side Lying Leg Raise
  • Bridge

Stretching Exercises for Spinal Stenosis

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  • Hamstring Stretch
  • Seated Backbends

Almost any form of physical activity can be helpful, but to improve spinal stenosis symptoms and improve your overall day-to-day functioning, you’ll want to focus on increasing mobility, strength, and flexibility in your back, core, pelvis, hips, and shoulder blades. According to Dr. Kemp, mobility exercises can help you function more in your everyday life without pain getting in the way. Strengthening exercises help provide support around your spine so you feel more confident in your body’s ability to move. And tight muscles can add more irritation on already-irritated nerves, which is why it’s important to incorporate stretching into your spinal stenosis exercise routine. The above exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists are a great place to start. 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Movement Makes Things Better

It can be discouraging to experience changes in your spine, but pain or limited mobility don’t have to keep you from your favorite activities — in fact, movement is only going to help improve your symptoms. A physical therapist can help you find ways to regain function by recommending specific exercises to help you move comfortably. “We can help you desensitize areas of pain and discomfort and help build up tolerance to the activities that are most important to you,” says Dr. Kemp. 

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.  

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

  1. Spinal Stenosis. (n.d.). National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/spinal-stenosis

  2. Raja, A., Hoang, S., Viswanath, O., Herman, J. A., & Mesfin, F. B. (2021, December 19). Spinal stenosis. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441989/

  3. Wu, L., & Cruz, R. (2020). Lumbar Spinal Stenosis. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK531493/

  4. Bagley, C., MacAllister, M., Dosselman, L., Moreno, J., Aoun, S. G., & El Ahmadieh, T. Y. (2019). Current concepts and recent advances in understanding and managing lumbar spine stenosis. F1000Research, 8, 137. doi:10.12688/f1000research.16082.1/

  5. Spinal Stenosis. (2017, January 3). Medicine Plus. https://medlineplus.gov/spinalstenosis.html