The Best Exercises for Spondylosis, According to Physical Therapists

Learn more about spondylosis, or age-related arthritis of the spine, what causes it, and how to treat it with tips from physical therapists.

Published Date: Feb 23, 2024
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When you think of aging, you probably think of gray hair and fine lines. These are common age-related changes that many of us come to expect. But there are many other changes that come with age that are often less visible or talked about. Spondylosis is one of them.

Spondylosis refers to age-related arthritis of the spine, and 90% of people ages 60 and up have it. While that might sound alarming, this condition doesn’t always cause symptoms. In fact, most people who have it don’t even know it. “I remind people that spondylosis is just a general term for normal aging of the spine,” says Sarah Kellen, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “Think of it like wrinkles on the inside.”

Even if you’ve been told by a doctor that you have spondylosis, it’s common not to have any associated discomfort or pain. But if your back has been feeling stiff, tight, or creaky, or if you can’t move your neck as well as you used to, there’s a lot you can do to feel better and improve mobility. 

Read on to learn more about spondylosis and how to relieve any pain you’re feeling with help from our Hinge Health physical therapists.

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Our Hinge Health Experts

Sarah Kellen, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Kellen is a Hinge Health Physical Therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist. She has a special interest in pregnancy and postpartum care.
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.
Maureen Lu, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Lu is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with over 17 years of clinical experience.

What Is Spondylosis?

Spondylosis occurs when the cartilage around the joints of the spine and the discs that cushion vertebrae (bones) change over time. You might lose some bone mass, develop bone spurs, or the rubbery intervertebral discs could shift. All of these common issues fall under the umbrella of spondylosis.

Most people don’t know they have spondylosis, which is perfectly fine as it doesn’t always require a “fix.” However, sometimes spondylosis can contribute to discomfort or stiffness, leading to chronic neck or back pain.

Spondylosis: A Hinge Health Perspective

Learning about conditions that can cause pain can be scary, and the prospect of hearing that your spine is changing can be understandably alarming. But we know from Hinge Health members and research studies that anatomical labels can backfire when it comes to your treatment and recovery. When people hear they may have a condition like spondylosis, it can cause feelings of panic, like you have something "wrong" that needs to be fixed. This way of thinking about pain is largely outdated.

 For most common musculoskeletal conditions, the solution is often the same. Movement — through physical and exercise therapy — can build strength, flexibility, and resilience to pain in and around the spine. While spondylosis can’t be reversed, treatment can relieve discomfort, pain, and stiffness, helping to ensure that you can keep up with your usual activities and routines and enjoy a good quality of life.

Common Causes of Spondylosis

Spondylosis is osteoarthritis of the spine, and the number one cause is simply getting older, says Dr. Kellen. The overwhelming majority of older adults have spondylosis, but you might be more likely to notice symptoms if you have additional risk factors, including:

  • Suffering a fall, being in a car accident, or experiencing another trauma that impacts your spine.

  • Playing competitive sports (or having done so in the past).

  • Working a job that requires strenuous physical activity, such as lifting or moving heavy items.

  • Previous neck or back surgery.

  • You’re a smoker or former smoker.

  • Being sedentary, which can lead to muscle stiffness.

Symptoms of Spondylosis

Most people who have spondylosis don’t know it because it doesn’t cause them any pain. If you do develop symptoms, they might include:

  • Pain in your back or neck 

  • Stiffness

  • Limited range of motion (trouble bending or twisting your back or neck)

  • A creaky or clicking sound in your back when you move

Sometimes spondylosis can cause the vertebrae that make up your spine and the discs that cushion them to shift in such a way that puts more pressure on nerves. If this happens, you might also develop shooting pain, numbness, or tingling in the arms, legs, or groin area. “This is most likely to occur in the severe stages of spondylosis if the joints have narrowed significantly,” says Dr. Kellen. If you experience any of these symptoms, Dr. Kellen recommends you get evaluated by your physician. 

Treatment Options for Spondylosis

Most people with spondylosis benefit from conservative, non-invasive treatment. For mild to moderate spondylosis, the following treatment options can help.

  • Ice or heat. Either is okay, but “my preference is heat,” says Dr. Kellen. “It can help relieve some muscle stiffness and tension and make it easier for you to get moving.”

  • Regular exercise. Many people with back or neck pain are afraid to move, but being sedentary typically makes symptoms worse, says Dr. Kellen. Instead, it’s important to embrace “movement optimism,” which means viewing physical activity as an important part of your treatment. Try to engage daily in one or more activities that you enjoy and that feel good to you, such as walking, swimming, or biking. 

  • Movement snacks. Even if you have a regular exercise routine, it’s important not to stay stuck in one position (like at your desk or on the couch) for hours on end. Instead, try “movement snacks,” which are mini movement breaks that allow you to change position and get blood flowing. “It really helps to alleviate stiffness associated with spondylosis,” says Dr. Kellen.

  • Exercise therapy. A physical therapist (PT) can design a program for you that will lubricate the joints and bones in the spine and increase blood flow to the whole region. “A PT can help open up the joints a bit and keep symptoms at bay,” says Dr. Kellen. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

  • Cat Cow
  • Lower Body Nerve Glides
  • Bird Dog
  • Thread the Needle
  • Standing Side Bend with Arm Reach
  • Open Book Rotation

Any physical activity can be helpful for spondylosis, but a physical therapist can suggest moves that target the spine and are tailored to your specific symptoms. The following exercises, often recommended by Hinge Health 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: Hurt Doesn’t Equal Harm

If you have symptoms related to spondylosis, your back or neck might feel a little sensitive when you first start increasing movement, says Dr. Kellen. “The tissues might be on ‘high alert,’ but mild discomfort does not mean you’re making your pain worse. In fact, it’s the opposite. Exercise, even when it’s a little uncomfortable, can help you get stronger and more flexible.” Just remember to monitor how you’re feeling — you don’t want to push through unacceptable levels of pain. 

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. Spondylosis. (n.d.). Yale Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.yalemedicine.org/conditions/spondylosis.

  2. Khormaee, S. (2023, April 17). Spondylosis: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment. Hospital for Special Surgery. https://www.hss.edu/conditions_spondylosis-overview.asp

  3. Spondylosis. (2022). Penn Medicine. https://www.pennmedicine.org/for-patients-and-visitors/patient-information/conditions-treated-a-to-z/spondylosis