Spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the spinal canal which results in pinched spinal nerves, has many causes. Age-related degenerative changes are the most common reason for this condition, but it can also occur due to herniated disks, ligament changes, trauma, tumours, bone deformities and genetics. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, this affliction affects as many as 1.2 million Americans. However, spinal stenosis can be improved with therapeutic exercise, and physical activity should be a key part of any treatment program to help a person resume a normal life and alleviate pain.
Know that the inflammation of compressed spinal nerves is what causes the symptoms of spinal stenosis. According the Mayo Clinic, and depending upon the location of neural impingement, you may experience one or more of the following symptoms: pain in the legs, hips, back, shoulders, neck and head, loss of balance, numbness, weakness, and loss of bowel or bladder function. If you suffer from this condition, exercising may be the last thing on your mind. However, inactivity can actually increase your discomfort and cause further debilitation. Physical activity helps to fortify the muscles that support the spine and can decrease your pain and improve your symptoms.
Walking, biking, swimming and core strengthening exercises are some of the most effective for this condition. These activities increase your body's strength, stability and flexibility without putting too much stress on your spine. Aim for 30 minutes of low-impact aerobic exercise at least three times per week. Strength and flexibility exercises should be done at least twice a week. Yoga and Pilates classes, which focus on increasing flexibility and core strength, can be beneficial to individuals with spinal stenosis. Here are some specific exercises to incorporate into your routine:
Improve core strength with abdominal crunches. Lie on your back with your feet on the floor and your knees bent. Cross your arms in front of your chest. Lift your head and shoulder blades off of the ground while contracting your abs. Hold the "crunch" for a second before slowly returning to the starting position. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
Try prone hyperextensions: Lie on a mat face down with your arms by your sides and your legs fully extended. At the same time raise your upper body and legs off of the mat. Your hips and abdomen should remain in contact with the ground. Slowly lower to the starting position and repeat 10 times.
Do rotations. Stand with your back against the wall. Extend your arms straight out in front of you, parallel to the ground and with your palms touching each other. Rotate your trunk to one side while keeping your hands and arms in front of your chest. Try to come as close as you can to the wall with your hands in a pain-free range of motion. Repeat to the other side. Do 10 repetitions.
Improve flexibility with the back flexion. Lie on your back and pull both of your knees to your chest until you feel a slight stretch. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, and slowly return to the starting position. Repeat three times.
Do the seated lower back stretch. Sit upright on a mat with one leg extended against the ground and the other leg bent at the knee with your foot on the floor. Rotate your torso towards the bent knee until you feel a slight stretch in your lower back. You can gently pull against your knee to increase the rotation of your torso and get a bigger stretch if desired. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Perform the cat stretch. Kneel with your hands and knees touching the mat. Round your back up as if you are trying to pull your navel into your spine. Hold the stretch for a second before reversing the movement so that you are pushing your navel and glutes outward and stretching your lower back. Repeat 10 times.
Note that you may find that you are more comfortable exercising in a flexed-forward position. Modifying certain exercises is sometimes necessary to ensure your comfort. For example, walking while bent over or leaning on a walker, or biking while leaning forward on the handlebars might feel better than performing the exercises in an upright position. If you should experience an increase in pain while performing any exercise, you should cease the activity.
Some people with spinal stenosis will not feel relief from therapeutic exercise due to factors, such as advanced degeneration or bone spurs. If this is the case for you, then you may need to explore other treatment options. Non-invasive therapies, such as deep tissue massage, ultrasound, hot and cold packs and electrical stimulation are available. You may also be a candidate for spinal stenosis surgery. Every case of spinal stenosis is different, so speak with your doctor about the best treatment for you.