Spinal stenosis is defined as a condition that occurs when there is an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal. If only a small amount of spinal narrowing occurs, no pain will result. As the narrowing increases, less and less space is available for the spinal cord and nerves, causing compression or squeezing of the spinal cord and its nerves. This compression leads to back and leg pain and leg weakness. Spinal stenosis can occur anywhere in the spinal canal, but it is most common in the cervical and lumbar spine.
The narrowing of the spinal canal is caused by the combination of bulging discs, arthritic spurs, and thickened tissues. Together, these issues combine to compress the nerves traveling through the spinal canal. There are several treatment options for people suffering with this condition, but in this article we will be discussing physical therapy as a treatment for spinal stenosis.
Physical therapy helps people with a large range of issues. The purpose of physical therapy is to help you continue your activities of daily living and life roles. At OSC, our fully-equipped PT gym and team of physical therapists and PT aides work with patients to develop a plan to feel better through specific and targeted exercise. Research shows that the more exercise you can handle, the quicker you’ll function and feel better, so keep that in the back of your mind when your physical therapist is trying to push you a little bit harder and you find yourself scowling at her! The key is to find exercises that are enjoyable for you, doable, and do not exacerbate your symptoms.
Physical therapy is an effective treatment for many reasons:
1. It strengthens the muscles around the spine, taking pressure off the bones and other structures in the back.
2. Exercise will help your flexibility, which can help prevent tight muscles that put pressure on the spine.
3. Exercise increases the blood flow to the back, which brings much-needed oxygen and nutrients into the area.
4. Staying active helps maintain a healthy weight, which may alleviate back and leg pain
5. Exercise gets our endorphins flowing and improves one’s overall outlook. This can reduce pain and improve painful symptoms.
To help achieve a better range of motion and to relieve pain, your therapist will design a program based on an overall evaluation and your own goals. Physical therapy will help you maintain the motion of the spine, strengthen abdominal and back muscles, and build endurance. If you are suffering with spinal stenosis, please refrain from doing exercises unless you are under the care of a health professional.
Stretching and Flexibility exercises – Your therapist will also incorporate stretching and flexibility exercises to improve mobility in the spine and your extremities. Stretching helps reduce pain and improves blood flow to the area you are stretching. Yoga is also an option that offers many physical and emotional benefits.
Strengthening Exercises – Your therapist will also work with you to strengthen your lower body and also your arm muscles to help ease the burden on your spinal joints.
Aerobic – Low impact aerobic exercises, such as swimming, walking, and cycling are recommended exercises to alleviate symptoms because they treat your back and neck to gentle strengthening and stretching. Low impact exercise involve smooth and gradual motion, which, when combined with other treatments, medication, and therapies may help alleviate or eliminate symptoms altogether.
Other treatments that your therapist may use:
Manual therapy – this is a hands-on treatment designed to improve the mobility of stiff joints that might be contributing to your symptoms. The therapist will position your body to feel the maximum benefit of therapy targeted to a specific area of your body.
Posture education – The therapist might take time with you to help you learn how to relieve pressure on your nerves by making subtle changes in how you sit, stand, walk, and sleep. You need to be conscious of your posture.
Other special treatments, such as the use of electrical stimulation or ice, may help for severe pain that does not subside with exercise or manual therapy.
Physical therapy is an excellent option for patients who are interested in non-invasive treatment. Many people see significant improvement from physical therapy, and we encourage you to explore this option if you think it may benefit you.
Rachel Tyler, MPT, CIMT is the Physical Therapy Clinic Director at the Orthopaedic & Spine Center in Newport News, VA.