Spinal stenosis is a malady of the back that impacts millions of Americans. Typically an affliction that occurs as a person ages, and especially prevalent in the senior population, spinal stenosis can make walking both difficult and painful. But don’t put your dancing shoes away just yet! With these helpful exercises and tips, you will be able to keep your spine as strong as your will!
Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the bones of the spine through which your nerves pass, often causing numbness, weakness, and/or pain in the back and/or a portion of the leg or arm on one or both sides of the body. The joints of the spine tighten and lose flexibility with age. As a result, those suffering from this malady often experience increased pain over time, making it especially painful for elderly patients.
Symptoms vary greatly from patient to patient. While not all cases result in pain, those who are not so lucky experience pain ranging from mild discomfort to crippling pain. Mild cases typically complain of low back pain, while those suffering with more severe cases may experience pain shooting down the legs as far down as the toes. Pain usually intensifies with standing (better with sitting) and back arching. Other symptoms can include numbness, tingling (“funny bone sensation), and weakness of the legs. While bowel and bladder changes are uncommon, they can be a sign of very serious spinal compression, and require immediate medical attention.
The spinal cord runs from your brain to the base of your spine, and out into every part of your body. Ideally, the spinal vertebrae, the bones of the spine, are stacked one atop the other with optimal space between each bone to allow for a balanced, pain-free body. Over time, changes in posture (like rounded shoulders or forward head posture) or past and/or present injuries (like herniated or slipped discs or fractures or injuries to the spinal bone) compromise the space between the vertebrae and thus the optimal proportion of the body. This decrease in space causes compression of the vertebrae. As a result, the foramina, or holes through which the nerves travel, can narrow. This narrowing causes compression on the nerves that run through these holes, potentially resulting in pain.
As we age, calcium deposits can build up in the joints, causing bones to calcify. The calcification thickens the bone, making the canals through which our nerves channel narrow. Extension of the spine, which occurs when we arch (or to a lesser extent, stand or walk), further closes the canals and therefore compresses the nerves even more. When the nerves are compressed, they radiate pain or weakness down the legs.
- Add calcium and vitamin D to your diet. The health of the vertebrae is of critical importance in maintaining a strong spine and therefore decreasing chances of developing spinal stenosis, not to mention a host of other maladies. Consuming a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals from whole foods, specifically food rich in calcium and vitamin D, can make a huge difference in maintaining bone strength. To increase your calcium intake, try adding dairy, such as milk, yogurt or cheese, to your diet. If you prefer to stay away from dairy, add dark leafy greens (such as broccoli, bok choy, kale, and turnip greens), sardines, salmon, calcium-fortified foods, and only if necessary, a calcium supplement. To increase your vitamin D intake, add salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines, vitamin D–fortified foods, and a daily supplement.
- Move your spine. Spinal stenosis results from the joints of the spine tightening and losing flexibility. Simple spinal movements that articulate the vertebrae keep the spine supple and flexible, therefore decreasing the chances of that tightening. To combat how we constantly compress our vertebrae in our everyday life by sitting, and to a lesser extent, walking and standing, add simple exercises like bridging with an articulated decent—rolling down through the spine—or simple tucking and tilting of the pelvis may help.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking decreases bone density (a.k.a. bone strength) and increases chances of bone deterioration. Both put you at greater risk for disc injury and therefore increase your chances of spinal stenosis.
- Stand tall. A tall, upright posture translates to a lengthened spine with a healthy amount of space between each vertebra. While standing, equalize the weight on your feet, fighting to keep your body from shifting more to one side or another. Tighten your core by pushing the exterior flesh of your belly toward your spine. Imagine tightening a corset around your body to maintain this feeling of strength. Finally, open your collarbones wide, pull the tips of your shoulder blades down your back toward your feet, and pull your chin in toward your chest slightly, like you are trying to create a double chin.
- Sit tall. When seated, most of us slouch, crane our neck forward, and/or round our shoulders forward. This results in compression of our spinal vertebrae, which leads to a weakened spine susceptible to injury. Proper postural alignment while seated is crucial. Ground your feet on the floor, feeling the bases of your toes and your heel on ground. Now, equalize your weight on your feet and on your sit bones (those bones you can feel in the middle of your buttocks). Do not allow your body to lean more toward the right or left. Tighten your core by pushing the exterior flesh of your belly toward your spine. Imagine tightening a corset around your body to maintain this feeling of strength. Finally, open your collarbones wide, pull the tips of your shoulder blades down your back toward your feet, and pull your chin in toward your chest slightly, like you are trying to create a double chin.
- Lift with care. When lifting a heavy object, place your body directly in front of the object, bend your knees, and lift slowly. Avoid simultaneously bending and twisting, especially when lifting an item off the ground.
- Practice cold and heat therapy. Alternate between twenty minutes of cold packs and twenty minutes of a heating pad or a hot pack to reduce pain during flare-ups.
- Engage your core muscles. Tighten your core by pushing the exterior flesh of your belly toward your spine. Imagine tightening a corset around your body to maintain this feeling of strength.
- Strengthen and stretch. A combination of stretching and strengthening exercises is perhaps the best way to both help alleviate pain and avoid future flare-ups. See our suggested fitness routine.
1. Stand with your feet parallel to each other with your toes pointing forward. Notice the movement of your rib cage as you breathe naturally.
2. Wrap your arms around your rib cage with your fingertips pointing toward each other on your back body.
3. Slowly inhale through your nose, consciously pushing your rib cage to move east and west toward your palm centers. Notice how your fingers move away from each other as your rib cage expands.
4. Slowly exhale through your mouth, like a long yawn, allowing your rib cage to knit back together. Release all of the air out of your rib cage.
5. Repeat for 10 consecutive breaths!
1. Bend knees, feet flat. Draw knees to chest. Interlace hands over your knees. Equalize weight at the sacrum, and lengthen the side body.
2. Inhale; pull knees north. Exhale; push heels south. Take 5 to 8 breaths.
3. Release your grip. Place one foot onto the mat at a time.
1. Bend knees, feet flat.
2. Keeping knees bent, raise legs to a ninety-degree angle. Stack knees over hips and keep feet in line with knees.
3. Inhale; fill your ribs and abdominals with air. Exhale; knit your front ribs together, pull the external abdominal flesh toward the spine, and tap your toes on the floor. Inhale; lift legs back to a ninety-degree angle. Exhale; tap your toes on the floor.
1. Lay on your back with feet hip distance apart and arms by sides, palms facing down. Push hands and feet into the mat.
2. Inhale; tuck the pelvis pressing sacrum into mat. Lift spine off the floor one vertebrae at a time until hips are lifted up to the ceiling and shoulder blades are resting into the mat. Exhale; push hands and feet into the floor.
3. In the lifted bridge position, inhale to lengthen side body and open collarbones wide and exhale to pull the external abdominal flesh toward the spine.
4. Inhale; inflate the back body. Exhale; take 10 seconds to roll down the spine, bone by bone. Think of the spine as a pearl necklace, and try to place one pearl down on the floor at a time.
5. Breathe deliberately. Widen feet and rock knees side-to-side like windshield wipers to release any undue tension in the lower back.