physical therapy
Physical Therapy as Good as Surgery for Spinal Stenosis
September 28, 2017

Spinal Stenosis is the narrowing of the space of the spinal canal which puts pressure on the spinal cord and the nerves that extend down the back. Spinal Stenosis is usually the result of degeneration of discs, ligaments, or any of the joints between the vertebrae that form the spine. When this occurs, the narrowing creates pain in the groin, buttocks, and upper thigh, pain with standing or walking, pain that feels worse when leaning back.

There are methods that can help treat the pain caused by spinal stenosis including surgery, steroid shots, and physical therapy. Although surgery seems like a quick fix, it often causes other pains and a long recovery time. Physical therapy is also know to ease the pain associated with spinal stenosis.

The Study

Researchers recruited 169 men and women located in the Pittsburgh area with lower back pain associated with lumbar spinal stenosis. All participants agreed to undergo surgery knowing that half of the group would receive surgery right away, while the other half underwent a physical therapy program specifically designed for lumbar spinal stenosis.  In as little as 10 weeks, both groups noticed benefits. Over four months, their pain declined, while their physical ability started to improve. Two years after the start of the research, there was no difference in pain between the groups.

Found in the research, 25% of the surgery group experienced surgery related complications such as repeat surgery or surgery-related infection, while only 10% of the physical therapy group reported complications (LeWine, 2015).

Treatment Options

There is not one right treatment option for spinal stenosis and there are no rules in determining which one is right. However, this study does offer some guidance. Before this study, treatment for lumbar spinal stenosis included conservative measures including pain medications, anti-inflammatory medications, and sometimes steroid injections. It made sense before physical therapy was included in the conservative treatment.

Dr. Jeffrey N. Katz, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School suggests that people with lumbar spinal stenosis should first try a well-designed physical therapy program. After a plan of care for physical therapy is complete, then the talk of surgery should come about. If you are unsure about which route you should take after being diagnosed with spinal stenosis, one of our well-trained therapists would be happy to talk about a plan of care with you.