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Physical Therapy for Stenosis – Information, Exercises, and More

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with spinal stenosis, you may be wondering what your therapy and recovery options are—especially if you’re experiencing pain or weakness in your muscles.

Not everyone with spinal stenosis will experience symptoms.

If you are experiencing pain you may think surgery is your only option.

We have good news. Most patients who receive physical therapy for stenosis go on to recover and are able to live active, pain-free lives.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about physical therapy for spinal stenosis, and how it can help you.

What is Stenosis?

Occurring most often in the lower back or neck, spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spaces located in your spine.

This narrowing causes pressure on the nerves that travel through the spine, and can ultimately result in:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling

The two most common types of stenosis are:

  • Cervical stenosis
  • Lumbar stenosis

Osteoarthritis can cause wear-and-tear changes to the spine which can also lead to stenosis.

What Causes Stenosis?

Your spinal cord (the nerves in the spine) is protected by the bones of your spine, which run from your lower back to your neck.

It’s possible to be born with a small spinal canal, but when something happens that causes the open spaces in the spine to narrow, spinal stenosis occurs.

We’ll review several causes of spinal stenosis below.

Spinal Injuries

Trauma—such as a car accident—can cause fractures or dislocations of vertebrae which can damage the spinal canal.

Overgrowth of Bones

Bone spurs, caused by osteoarthritis, can grow into the spinal cord. Or in patients with Paget’s disease, a bone overgrowth can compress the nerve and cause damage.

Herniated Disks

When the soft disks that cushion our spine dry out with age, the hard exterior may crack. This allows the softer inner material to escape and put pressure on the contents of the spinal canal.


While uncommon, abnormal growths can appear inside the spinal cord in the space between the spinal cord and the vertebrae, or within the membranes covering the spinal cord.

Thickened Ligaments

Hypertrophy is when the cords (ligaments) that hold the bones of your spine in place begin to toughen or thicken. Over time they can eventually bulge into the spine and cause nerve-related pain.

Stenosis Symptoms

Even when spinal stenosis is present on a CT scan or MRI, not everyone experiences symptoms. However, symptoms can worsen gradually and may vary depending on the location of the stenosis.

Cervical Spine (Neck)

Symptoms of cervical stenosis include:

  • Neck pain.
  • Balance issues.
  • Weakness in a hand, foot, arm, or leg.
  • Tingling/Numbness in a hand, foot, arm, or leg.

Lumbar Spine (Lower Back)

Symptoms of lumbar stenosis include:

  • Back pain.
  • Weakness in a foot or leg.
  • Tingling/Numbness in a foot or leg.
  • Painful cramping of the legs when standing or sitting.

Stenosis Treatment

Treatment for spinal stenosis varies depending on location, severity, and symptoms experienced. Speak to your doctor about your treatment options. 

If self-care doesn’t work, then your doctor may suggest medications, physical therapy, or even surgery.


Your doctor may prescribe:

  • Pain relievers
  • Opioids
  • Anti-seizure drugs
  • Antidepressants

Physical Therapy

When people who have painful stenosis become less active, the muscles weaken and can cause even more pain. 

A physical therapist will:

  • Help build strength and endurance
  • Improve your balance
  • Help improve the flexibility of your spine

If these options don’t provide enough relief, your doctor may recommend one of the following procedures in combination with medication and physical therapy:

  • Steroid injections
  • Decompression procedure
  • Surgery

Most of the time,physical therapy and self-care enable patients to recover from spinal stenosis and return to their regular physical routines.

Spinal Stenosis Physical Therapy – Will PT Help?

Before rushing to the operating table, know that most patients are able to find relief through physical therapy for spinal stenosis. 

In one study, 62% of patients reported recovery after one year of manual physical therapy.

Spinal stenosis physical therapy treatments may involve any of the following:

  • Stretching – reduce stress on the joints
  • Exercises – strengthen muscles
  • Heat therapy – improved blood circulation
  • Ice therapy – for pain relief
  • Manual therapy – massage to improve the range of motion
  • Aquatic exercises – to exercise without pressure on the spine
  • Cycling – for physical conditioning 

In addition to the above treatments, your physical therapist will also provide you with education to help you improve and maintain your posture and instruction on how to do exercises that will support your health.

Your program will be designed specifically for your normal level of activity, fitness, and severity of pain.

Best Spinal Stenosis Physical Therapy Exercises

Your physical therapist will recommend that you perform certain exercises on your own as a part of your ongoing recovery.

These exercises will help relieve your symptoms as well as prevent the progression of the condition. 

These techniques include:

  • Pelvic tilts to stabilize the lower back
  • Stretching to reduce stress on the joints
  • Pushing, pulling, and lifting techniques and exercises
  • Changing positions frequently to avoid spinal compression
  • Lower limb strengthening to help avoid falls

Including the recommended exercises and techniques into your everyday life will take practice and dedication

By taking an active role in your recovery you will begin to see results much sooner.

How In Motion O.C. Can Help With Stenosis

Studies show that 79% of patients who engage in stenosis physical therapy treatments for one year reduced their likelihood of requiring surgery.

In Motion O.C. has helped hundreds of patients with spinal stenosis do the same thing—and we can help you too. 

Our patient testimonials and case studies speak for themselves. Voted #1 Physical Therapy Clinic in the entire country on Yelp, we continue to bring relief and comfort to every patient we treat. 

All of our physical therapy treatments take place in our state-of-the-art facility and are conducted by our world-class Physical Therapists.

*This information about physical therapy for stenosis was reviewed by Dr Natalie Thomas, PT, DPT. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us here.

In Motion O.C.