Spinal stenosis occurs when pressure is placed on the spinal cord or the root of the nerves that run from the spinal cord to the body. This pressure is caused by narrowing or constriction of the spinal column or the neural foramen, which is the opening between the vertebrae through which nerves run.
Spinal stenosis can cause many symptoms. Experiencing pain, tingling or numbness in the neck, shoulders or arms, especially if it is felt only on one side, is a symptom of spinal stenosis. Pain, weakness or numbness in the back of the leg or buttocks area is another symptom that may be caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve. Other symptoms of spinal stenosis include problems maintaining balance or control of urinary and bowel movements.
The number one reason spinal stenosis occurs is osteoarthritis in the spine. Osteoarthritis happens often with age. If it affects the spine it does so by wearing down the cartilage between the spinal vertebrae. As early as 30 years of age the discs in our spine may show signs of wear. The ligaments in our back can become less elastic over time. This lack of stretchiness can pull our spine and cause the narrowing of the spinal column that leads to spinal stenosis. Another reason we may develop spinal stenosis is injuries or traumas that may knock the spinal vertebrae out of place.
Spinal stenosis can usually be treated with exercise, medication and/or rest, but sometimes surgery is recommended. Most commonly, spinal stenosis will be treated with either stabilisation surgery or decompression surgery. Stabilisation surgery is also known as spinal fusion, when a surgeon will use equipment such as wires, rods, plates and a bone graft to encourage spinal vertebrae to grow together. In decompression surgery, the tissue that was compressing a nerve is taken out. Examples of decompression surgery include laminectomy, laminotomy and foraminotomy.
A good physical therapist may prescribe some of the following exercises to improve the conditions of spinal stenosis. Note: Be sure to check with your physician before starting any new exercise program.
Modified Crunch/Rotation Crunches: Lie face up on an exercise mat with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Lift your legs into the air if you have to but make sure your lower back is flat against the mat. Leave your arms on the floor but keep them relaxed. Crunch up just enough to lift your shoulders off the mat. Hold for three to five seconds. Do 10 to 12 repetitions. After you have done a set of crunches, do another 10 to 12 reps per side with rotation. Do this by twisting your shoulders at the top of the crunch and reaching with your arm for your opposite knee.
Cobra: Lie face down with your arms at your sides. Squeeze your gluts (gluteal muscles of the buttocks) and abs (abdominal muscles), but keep your legs relaxed on the floor. Lift your upper body a few inches off the floor and hold for three to five seconds. Do a total of 10 to 12 reps. Do not lift high enough to cause pain.
Opposite Arm/Leg Lift: Lie face down on an exercise mat with your arms stretched overhead. Lift your right arm and your left leg. Hold for three to five seconds. Lower your arm and leg. Now, lift your left arm and your right leg. Hold. Continue to alternate until you have done 10 lifts on each side.
Other exercises you can do are core exercises that improve your posture. Having a straight back and strong muscles and tendons to support your spine will reduce pain caused by spinal stenosis. Be careful not to do advanced exercises, and check with your physician before attempting any of the following:
Bridges: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Scoot your feet toward you until they are touching your buttocks. Feet should be hip-width apart and pointing straight forward. Arms should be at 45 degrees to your sides. Squeeze your abs and glut muscles and lift your hips off the floor as you exhale. Hold for two to three seconds. Inhale and lower your hips back to the floor. Do a total of 10 to 12 reps.
Bent-Leg Reverse Crunches: Lie on your back with your arms resting at your sides. Bend your knees to right angles and lift off the floor. Push your lower back down against the floor or a mat. Slowly lower your legs and squeeze your abs to keep your back flat. Lower your legs no more than you can while maintaining a flat back. Hold for two seconds and then lift your legs back over your hips.
Stretching will improve your flexibility and the elasticity of your tendons and ligaments. Keeping your spine flexible will increase its range of motion and reduce the chances of injury. Always do a 5- to 10-minute aerobic warm-up before stretching.
Lower Back Stretch: Lie on your back and pull your knees up. Hug your knees to your body and hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
Hamstring Stretch: Lie on your back with your legs straight on the floor. Lift one leg up and grab it behind the hamstring. Keeping your leg straight and your toes flexed, pull your leg toward you until you feel the stretch in the back of your leg. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. This stretch can also be done sitting on an exercise ball. Sit on the ball with both legs straight in front of you and your feet on the floor. Your legs should be slightly open like a V. Lock your knees and lean forward until you feel the stretch in the hamstrings. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
Back Bend: Stand up straight with your arms reaching overhead. Lean backwards slightly allowing your low back to arch. Squeeze your gluts. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds. Go slowly at first as it may be difficult for you to keep your balance in the beginning.