Lumbar spinal stenosis can be a painful condition. When the spinal cord narrows, it puts pressure on the spinal cord, which often leads to pain, tightness, or numbness down the back or in one leg. This narrowing is sometimes the result of a herniated disc, buckling or inflamed ligaments, bone spurs, or some combination of these factors.
Exercises and stretches aren’t particularly helpful for spinal stenosis—and in fact, some exercises will aggravate your condition (as you may have already discovered).1 But if you’re among the many people who exercise regularly as part of your daily routine, you may be wondering if there are any exercises you should avoid if you have spinal stenosis. Below are three to stay away from, and some alternative options that you may want to try instead.
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3 Spinal Stenosis Exercises To Avoid
1. Avoid stretching in a standing position and extension stretches.
Thanks to the simple force of gravity, doing stretches while standing up puts unnecessary stress on your spine. If you have lumbar spinal stenosis, your spinal cord already has extra pressure on it from the narrowing canal; stretching in a standing position adds to it.
Also, avoid doing extension stretches (those where you bend backwards). These exercises are often done to increase flexibility—but for those with spinal stenosis, the backwards position collapses the spinal canal even more, which could potentially exacerbate your symptoms.
Instead, try stretching while laying down.
When you stretch sitting down, you won’t be putting any additional stress on your spine. Knee stretches, in particular, are safe for those with spinal stenosis. To do knee stretches, lie on your back and gently pull one bent knee up to your chest. Hold it for a few seconds, then slowly return the bent leg to the floor. Repeat with your other leg. Then bring both knees up to your chest together, hold for a few seconds, and release both legs. These types of flexion exercises opens up the canal and may even help to relieve the symptoms of stenosis somewhat.
2. Avoid doing free weights.
Putting a weight bar across your shoulders and doing squats—or doing any other type of weight lifting—compresses your spine. That means the discs in between your vertebrae flatten somewhat, which can also lead to further compression on the nearby nerves. And while our bodies are generally built to handle compression to a certain degree, this type of exercise isn’t beneficial for someone with spinal stenosis.
Instead, try using a weight machine.
A weight machine is designed to support your body while you’re working out a specific muscle group. So while you’re lifting weights to strengthen your arms or legs, the machine is helping to stabilize your back (as long as you’re using it properly). That helps reduce potential issues for stenosis patients who are weight-lifting. Sitting while weight lifting is also not as traumatic for your back generally, because the forces placed upon your spine are reduced.
3. Avoid running and similar high-impact exercises.
Pounding your feet on a hard surface for a length of time increases the compressive load on your spine. So if you have spinal stenosis, this type of repetitive impact will very likely irritate your spinal stenosis. And for those who are wondering whether walking helps spinal stenosis, the answer is...not really. While it’s always beneficial to keep moving, long walks on a hard surface can put the same kind of stress on your back that running can, and may cause your pain to flare up.
Instead, try swimming, cycling, or an elliptical machine.
Activities like these give your metabolism a boost (which helps you burn more calories) but are much easier on your spine than running or walking. Swimming is particularly ideal for spinal stenosis patients because it works a broad range of muscles and allows you to stretch and exercise simultaneously—all in the gentle, non-weight-bearing environment of water.2 You can also try water walking, both forward and backward, in chest-high water. You’ll get a great workout without any damaging impact to your spine.
What about cervical stenosis? What exercises should you avoid?
If your stenosis is located in the neck, avoid doing arm-strengthening exercises that involve lifting weights up over your head. This put a huge strain on the discs in your neck and could make your condition worse. You should also avoid any exercise that moves your head in a circular pattern (like a neck roll) or that involve excessive flexion of the neck. All place undue pressure on an area of your spine that is already compromised.
Instead, try exercises that stretch and strengthen the muscles in your upper back, including moderate strength training (without the movements mentioned in the previous paragraph).3 As with lumbar spinal stenosis, swimming and cycling are excellent low-impact exercises that are safe to do even with narrowing of the cervical spine.
As always, we recommend talking with your doctor before starting any kind of exercise regimen to ensure you’re doing the right activities for your specific condition.
1Jarrett, M. S., Orlando, J. F., & Grimmer-Somers, K. (2012). The effectiveness of land based exercise compared to decompressive surgery in the management of lumbar spinal-canal stenosis: a systematic review. BMC musculoskeletal disorders, 13(1), 30.
2Baena-Beato, P. Á., Artero, E. G., Arroyo-Morales, M., Robles-Fuentes, A., Gatto-Cardia, M. C., & Delgado-Fernández, M. (2014). Aquatic therapy improves pain, disability, quality of life, body composition and fitness in sedentary adults with chronic low back pain. A controlled clinical trial. Clinical rehabilitation, 28(4), 350-360.
3Kumar, T., Kumar, S., Nezamuddin, M., & Sharma, V. P. (2015). Efficacy of core muscle strengthening exercise in chronic low back pain patients. Journal of back and musculoskeletal rehabilitation, 28(4), 699-707.