What is Spinal Stenosis, and Can Physical Therapy Help?

physical therapist works on patient's back

What does it mean to have spinal stenosis?

Our spine is an incredibly complex and powerful part of our body. It has been given the overwhelming task of not only supporting our whole body as the central axis of attachment, but it also carries our essential and delicate spinal cord. 

With all that pressure on one portion of the body, it makes sense that there is a myriad of pathologies that can be present in the spine.

Though the spine acts as a vessel for nerves and an attachment for muscles, it is first and foremost a series of vertebral bones, and bones have their own unique types of ailments. 

Most everyone knows that bones can break, and many people know that bones can bruise, but did you know that bones can also wear or grow in ways that can be harmful to the body? When our spine wears down, it is less able to do its essential tasks, including protecting the spinal nerves: a condition called spinal stenosis.

physical therapist educations patient about spinal stenosis

What does spinal stenosis feel like?

You have probably heard of, or even felt the effects of, arthritis. Osteoarthritis can affect the joints in your hands, hips, and knees, wearing down the cartilage and causing pain. But, did you know that it can affect your spine as well? The pain and lack of mobility associated with osteoarthritis is bad enough, but when it occurs in your spine, it also has some unfortunate effects on the nerves that pass through the spine.

The spinal cord passes through what is called the spinal foramen (the Latin word for ‘hole’ or ‘passage’), but this passage is not the only one containing nerves in your spine. At each level or vertebrae of the spine, we have nerves that go between the spinal cord and the rest of the body called spinal nerve roots. These nerve roots are among the most vulnerable parts of our nervous system as they pass through their narrow foraminal openings. Many injuries and illnesses can result in irritation of these nerve roots, which causes pain and disability, sometimes referred to as a “pinched nerve.”

You might recognize that you have a “pinched nerve” if you have a sharp, achy, burning pain, or even numbness that runs down your arm or leg. In some cases, nerve irritation can even result in weakness or paralysis of muscle groups as they lose their connectivity to the spine and the central nervous system.

Is spinal stenosis serious?

Pain and paralysis might sound catastrophic, but there is actually a wide variety of treatments for spinal stenosis that can alleviate or prevent symptoms. As musculoskeletal experts, physical therapists have the education and experience to assess your condition, provide a diagnosis and determine the best treatment for your unique situation.

What is the best thing to do for spinal stenosis?

The first step in treating spinal stenosis is to address the root cause of the symptoms: the compression of the nerve root. Alterations to your sitting, standing, and sleep posture, as well as exercises designed to open the spaces for nerves to travel, can rapidly relieve symptoms.

Relief from pain is only the first part of your treatment, however. It is also essential to prevent future nerve irritation. Stretching and strengthening exercises can help bring your spine back into balance and prevent further narrowing of spaces through which spinal roots travel.

For instance, if someone lacks essential mobility in their hips, they might compensate by extra arching or twisting in the lower back, which could lead to decreased space for the nerve to travel through that area of the spine. Increasing mobility to decrease that tendency toward compensation can be a big benefit to the spine. Additionally, improving the strength and endurance of the muscles that support the spine can help maintain good posture and avoid that same compression.

How does physical therapy help with spinal stenosis?

If you have been suffering from back pain, especially burning or achy pain associated with nerve irritation, physical therapy can help. Physical therapists have an excellent clinical understanding of stenosis of the spine – lumbar spinal stenosis and cervical spinal stenosis.

physical therapist works with patient on back strength

With spinal stenosis physical therapy, you will learn the cause of your condition, be educated on what it means, and have a partner in treatment so you can find the most optimal solution. Your physical therapist will work with you to treat your pain and dysfunction through hands-on care, prescribed exercise and education to empower you to live an active, pain-free life. Don’t just ignore your pain, assuming it’s merely a pinched nerve. The sooner you seek treatment, the better your outcome will be.

Give your local Therapeutic Associates Physical Therapy clinic a call. Our team will help you determine if your insurance includes direct access, which allows you to seek care from your choice of PT without a prescription or referral.

Start your journey to pain-free living today.

Our experts are committed to providing effective, efficient, and compassionate care to help you live a pain-free, active life. Our passion is to help every patient reach their goals on their journey to recovery and optimal performance.

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