Spinal Stenosis Exercises to Avoid – Don’t Make It Worse!

Aching pain in the legs as you walk? Stiff back that gets gradually worse the more you do each day? You could be suffering from spinal stenosis. While there are certainly exercises you can do that will help, there are also spinal stenosis exercises to avoid. Today, we talk about what these exercises to avoid are and which ones to do instead.

But first – What is spinal stenosis?

Spinal stenosis simply means “narrowing of the spinal canal and the areas where the nerves exit the spine”.

The word “stenosis” simply means narrowing. That’s why on MOST MRI scans, we see the word “stenosis” or “stenotic changes” on the report. If there are any spaces in the spine that are narrowed beyond what we would consider “normal”, the radiologist will use the term stenosis.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have “true” spinal stenosis, which is categorised by the presence of the following 2 symptoms:

  • Back pain that is worse when walking and standing, but goes away when you sit or lie down.
  • Neurogenic claudication” – a term to describe a throbbing, dull ache in the lower legs (usually calves) that continues to worsen as you walk and stand, but goes away when you sit down.

“True” spinal stenosis is caused by widespread narrowing of the spaces in the spine where the nerves run through. It’s extremely uncommon for anyone under the age of 50 to suffer from true spinal stenosis.

You may have been told that you have a disc bulge causing stenosis in the spine. As confusing as this is, you likely don’t have TRUE spinal stenosis (you probably have narrowing in just one area of the spine). Therefore, the advice in this article may not apply to you.

 

What about recovery from spinal stenosis?

Unfortunately, the structure changes that have occurred to cause true spinal stenosis will not return to normal. It’s usually the ageing process that has led to these changes and we can’t reverse the structural changes in the spine.

However, all is not lost – we can improve symptoms in spinal stenosis, even if we can’t change the physical structures in the spine.

I’ve had many testimonials from people with spinal stenosis using my programs and getting a great outcome, as well as new strategies to control their symptoms when they arise. So it’s definitely worth the effort of finding a proper rehabilitation program if you have spinal stenosis.

A proper rehabilitation program will help people with spinal stenosis by doing the following:

  • Improving the flexibility of the muscles in the legs and reducing the “pull” on the spine so you can walk for further before pain
  • Relieving tension in the back muscles and reducing back pain
  • Improving fitness capacity so you walk for further with perfect technique, delaying pain
  • Improving flexibility in the spine which lubricates the joints that the nerves run through
  • Restoring health to the pinched nerves and reducing leg pain

I think the above constitutes a pretty compelling argument for having a good exercise program for spinal stenosis! However, it’s very easy to get it wrong when selecting exercises for spinal stenosis.

Choose the wrong ones, and you’re going to make your back sore and bring on leg pain even quicker than before. These spinal stenosis exercises to avoid are often included in the exercise programs you’ll get online and in lots of Yoga routines on YouTube. Therefore, it’s crucial that you know which spinal stenosis exercises to avoid so you can create your own list of safe, effective exercises!

 

Spinal stenosis exercises to avoid

Spinal stenosis exercise to avoid #1 – The Cobra

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Why this is a spinal stenosis exercise to avoid:

Nine times out of ten, people with spinal stenosis find that walking and standing are painful. Both of these activities are what we call extension exercises. They cause the spine to move in a way called extension, which simply means leaning backwards. Extension movements cause the bony surfaces in the spine to move towards each other and close down narrow spaces even more.

Because of this, they make narrowing within the spine worse. You might find that if you try this action, your pain gets worse immediately, or directly after.

Therefore, lying on your front and pushing up, like in The Cobra exercise, is a spinal stenosis exercise to avoid.

 

Spinal stenosis exercise to avoid #2 – Standing Extension

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Why this is a spinal stenosis exercise to avoid:

This might be the worst exercise someone with spinal stenosis could possibly choose. By leaning back in standing, you’ve got both the weight of the body and the extension movement causing compression on the already narrowed areas in the spine.

If you have spinal stenosis, make sure you don’t use this extension movement in standing.

 

Spinal stenosis exercise to avoid #3 – The Bridge

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Why this is a spinal stenosis exercise to avoid:

While the bridge is a great exercise for strengthening the gluteals and may be a good exercise for some people with sciatica, the bridge is certainly a spinal stenosis exercise to avoid.

Can you see in the second picture how by bringing the hips off the floor, the spine goes into extension? This movement will cause pain in the lower back as the bony spaces close up. There are far better alternatives for people with spinal stenosis.

 

Spinal stenosis exercise to avoid #4 – Hip Extension

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Why this is a spinal stenosis exercise to avoid:

Even though this is a hip exercise, you can see how by lifting a leg off the floor in this position, our spines go into extension. This extension movement will cause pain in the back and leg in someone with this condition and is therefore a spinal stenosis exercise to avoid.

The problem with this exercise is that it is often prescribed for people with hip arthritis, which is common with spinal stenosis.

 

Better Exercises for Spinal Stenosis: Do these instead!

Exercise for Spinal Stenosis #1: Knee Hugs

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Why this spinal stenosis exercise works:

The common theme for the recommended exercises for spinal stenosis is that they all involve the opposite of spinal extension – we call this movement FLEXION.

In the above picture, you can see how as we hug the legs, the pelvis rotates and our spine moves into this flexion position. This opens up the narrowed spaces in the spine and allows the compressed nerves to “breathe” for a while, relieving symptoms effectively.

 

Exercise for Spinal Stenosis #2: Flexion in Sitting

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Why this spinal stenosis exercise works:

This is a fantastic spinal stenosis exercise to do from a chair. Again, by bending forward, you’ll open up the spaces in the spine where the nerves run through and allow them more freedom to move. This exercise is fantastic at relieving back pain as well.

I give this exercise to all my clients with spinal stenosis as a rapid relief position they can get into if their pain suddenly comes on or worsens and they see somewhere convenient to sit down.

 

Exercise for Spinal Stenosis #3: The Gluteal Stretch

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Why this spinal stenosis exercise works:

This exercise is more of a stretch than a spinal exercise, but it stretches a muscle group closely related to the spine called the “gluteals”. These muscles often get tight in people with spinal stenosis and can pull the spine into a more compromised position.

 

Exercise for Spinal Stenosis #4: The Hip Flexor Stretch

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Why this spinal stenosis exercise works:

In many people with spinal stenosis, their posture has something called an “anterior pelvic tilt”. This is a position of the pelvis where the pelvic bowl tilts forwards. This is actually a poor position for someone with spinal stenosis to be in; it increases extension in the spine and will make their pain worse.

If you have an anterior pelvic tilt, it’s likely that your hip flexors will be tight. By stretching the hip flexors with the exercise shown above, we can reduce that anterior pelvic tilt and take some more pressure off the spine.

 

A Sample Exercise Program for Spinal Stenosis

The following is a typical exercise program I might prescribe for someone with spinal stenosis. Bear in mind that what I find on my assessment dictates which exercises I might prescribe; so some of these exercises may not be suitable for you. However, it’ll give you a good idea of how many repetitions of each you need to do for a positive effect.

The Program:

  • Knee Hugs: 10 repetitions on each side; morning, afternoon and evening
  • Gluteal Stretch: 30-second hold x 2 each side; morning and evening
  • Hip Flexor Stretch: 30-second hold x 3 each side; morning and evening
  • Flexion in Sitting: 5 slow repetitions; morning, afternoon, evening and whenever in pain

 

Summary

Hopefully, my list of spinal stenosis exercises to avoid will give you a great idea of some of the positions and exercises you need to steer clear from when looking for help online.

Have you found any exercises that help your spinal stenosis? Let us know in the comments below!

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