While it’s good fun to watch cats try to squeeze themselves into too-tight boxes (if I fits, I sits, right?), the issues caused by a narrowing spinal canal putting the squeeze on your nerves are decidedly not fun.
Pain, numbness, and muscle weakness are common symptoms of spinal stenosis, the medical term for this narrowing of the spinal openings. It’s no surprise that just one (or all) of these symptoms can make everyday walking a challenge.
If the discomfort from spinal stenosis is causing you trouble when walking, don’t worry. There are ways to relieve the pain that work even better than distracting yourself with cat videos.
Here’s everything there is to know about spinal stenosis walking problems and the steps (no pun intended) you can take to combat them.
Your gait (the way you walk) can change as a result of spinal stenosis.
Spinal stenosis can sometimes lead to compression of spinal nerves, which can cause a flare-up of sciatica (pressure or inflammation that affects a specific nerve in your lower spine). When this happens, you might notice a pins-and-needles feeling or numbness in one or both legs.
Depending on which nerves are compressed, you may also notice what’s called a foot drop. This condition creates a feeling of weakness when lifting your foot or toes upward (aka, flexing up). Another nerve can specifically impact your comfort and ability to walk on your tiptoes.
Spinal stenosis walking problems can also be caused by an overall weakening of thigh and leg muscles due to underuse. When the muscles become weak, it can cause balance issues.
Chronic inflammation from ankylosing spondylitis (AS), a type of progressive arthritis, can cause ongoing pain in the spine and pelvis. It can also trigger the development of spinal stenosis and associated walking problems.
While most spinal stenosis walking problems develop slowly, more serious forms of spinal stenosis can sometimes lead to an increase in falls.
There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to spinal stenosis walking problems.
Since your spine helps control your entire body, you may notice all sorts of impacts from spinal stenosis, especially in your legs.
These are the most common examples of walking problems from spinal stenosis:
- numbness in your legs and feet
- weakness in your thighs and legs
- leg cramping or tingling
- burning pain in one or both legs
- difficulty maintaining balance
- increased falls
- lower back pressure when standing
- a foot that drops, or slaps down, when you walk
In most cases, yes, walking can help spinal stenosis. High impact exercise can make spinal stenosis worse, so low impact activities like walking are a good choice for those with the condition.
The key, though, is moderation. If at any point walking makes symptoms of spinal stenosis flare up, put the exercise on hold until you feel better. If walking continues to aggravate your condition, consider light stretching instead.
You can also modify your pace, your distance, and where you walk (for example, on a treadmill or outside) to create a comfortable routine that works for you.
Some quick and easy ways to take short walks include:
- walking your dog around the block
- running quick errands on foot
- parking farther from your destination
- setting a timer as a reminder to circle the office or house every hour or two
- taking walking meetings or phone calls
Spinal stenosis walking problems naturally play a role in foot and leg function. You may experience the following if you have spinal stenosis:
- Sciatica: nerve compression that can cause pain or weakness in your legs
- Foot drop: foot weakness that can cause your foot to drop, or slap the ground, as you walk
- Neurogenic claudication: pain or numbness in your back and legs that happens when you stand or walk that is relieved when you stoop over or bend forward at the waist
While spinal stenosis walking problems can be frustrating and painful, a few lifestyle changes have potential to ease your symptoms.
As mentioned above, gentle exercise like walking can be your best friend. Since spinal stenosis causes a weakening of your leg and core muscles, strengthening both can relieve pain and other symptoms. You might want to try Pilates or yoga for focused exercises with these goals in mind.
Water aerobics and light swimming are also great exercise options for spinal stenosis. Being in the water will take pressure off your spine and stretch the muscles in your back.
Stretching in general can be super helpful in managing spinal stenosis walking problems. Knee-to-chest stretches, for example, can stretch out your lower back (and, subsequently, your spine) to release tension. Increasing your flexibility through stretching can help keep muscle stiffness away.
However, be mindful of how you feel. If any forms of exercise or other activities are causing you pain, steer clear of them. Don’t forget to give yourself much-deserved rest days as well.
For more severe spinal stenosis walking problems that cause discomfort and disruption in everyday life, you may want to consider physical therapy. Working with a PT may help you decrease pain and improve walking problems.
Physical therapists can teach you specific movements that can take pressure off the nerves in your spine. They can also work with you on stretching and strengthening your core muscles. This can significantly reduce symptoms like pain, weakness, and stiffness.
Additionally, physical therapists can help you relearn how to walk or how to modify your walk if spinal stenosis walking problems have changed your gait.
Physical therapy sessions will vary based on the therapist and the type of treatment plan they recommend for your needs. However, most sessions consist of light stretching, exercise, and pain relief (like heating pads). All can help with spinal stenosis.
Spinal stenosis can sometimes cause walking problems, but there’s a lot you can do to improve them.
By focusing on strengthening your body, learning when to rest, and working with a physical therapist if needed, you can manage spinal stenosis walking problems.