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The Best Spinal Arthritis Exercises

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT December 03, 2020 0 Comments

Man neck exercise

Spinal arthritis, such as lumbar osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, often results in a lot of back stiffness and pain. Having an appropriate spinal arthritis exercise program can make a huge difference when managing your symptoms. Well-designed exercises will potentially reduce joint pain, boost strength, restore flexibility,  promote healing, and restore functional balance to affected areas.. Keep scrolling to learn more about exercises for spinal arthritis.

Flexibility & Range of Motion Exercises

These gentle stretches can give you much needed pain relief and help restore or prevent loss of spinal flexibility. When your tissues are more extensible and can move uninhibited, you can get back to feeling like yourself sooner.

More Exercises for Lower Back Pain

1. Child’s Pose

This stretch targets the low back and mid-back at once. Start on your hands and knees with your hands directly under the shoulders and hips over the knees. Shift your butt back toward your heels, touching if possible. Let your chest fall down toward the floor and rest on your thighs (if possible) until you feel a stretch in the butt and low back. If you want to stretch your upper back and arms, keep your arms out in front of you as you hold. Otherwise, you can choose to put your hands by your side.

Hold the stretch for 30+ seconds for 2-3 sets. 

2. Cat/Cow Stretch

Great for general spine health and flexibility; start on your hands and knees. Take a deep breath as you arch your lower back, drop your belly toward the floor and look up toward the sky. Hold for 1-3 seconds before exhaling and switching directions. You will now bring your head down toward the floor, tuck the chin, and arch your mid-back up toward the sky.

Alternate between these two positions slowly and in control- moving with your breath. Repeat for 10-15 repetitions for up to 2-3 sets.

3. Lateral Side Bend Neck Stretch

The upper traps are a notorious problem spot for pain and stiffness. Stretching your neck to the side is a great way to combat this. Move your neck slowly to avoid strain or exacerbating any neck symptoms. Simply bring your right ear towards the right shoulder as far as you can until you feel a stretch into the left side between the ear and shoulder. For a stronger stretch, place your right hand over the top of your skull and apply overpressure from the left side. Switch to complete on the opposite side when you’re ready.

Hold for 30+ seconds on each side for 2-3 repetitions. Keep good posture and the chin tucked throughout the stretch. Your neck should feel looser and relaxed when finished.

4. Supine Chest Stretch

Stretching the chest is a great way to restore balance to the entire spine and give you mid-back and neck pain relief. Start by lying on your back with your feet flat on the floor and your arms out to the side, perpendicular to your body. Then, bend the elbows to 90 degrees and point your hands up toward the ceiling with the palms facing down toward your feet. Lastly, let the back of the palms fall back toward the floor, touching if possible, until a strong stretch is felt in the chest and possibly mid-back.

Hold, breathe, and relax for 60+ seconds for up to 3 sets.

Check out more videos from our physical therapists for the neck and low back here:

Stretches and Exercises for Neck Pain Relief

Neck Stretches for Upper Back Pain Relief

Neck & Back Strengthening Exercises

Consistent strengthening exercises for your back and neck will help to strengthen the muscles along the spine and make a big difference in managing your pain symptoms.

Neck Exercises

Try these three neck strengthening exercises from physical therapist, Dr. David Lee, to get started for addressing any neck or mid-back pain.

1. Chin Tucks

Sit in a chair with back support, establish good posture in the shoulders by bringing shoulders backs and chest forward. With your head directly over the top of your shoulders rather than slouching forward. You will then perform a subtle movement with your neck by simply tucking the chin down toward your chest as if you’re trying to give yourself a double chin. Your ear should rotate but not shift forwards or backwards. Make sure to keep the rest of the neck and upper back relaxed.

Hold each tuck for 5-15 seconds and repeat for up to 20 repetitions. If you’re experiencing pain or can’t seem to coordinate the movement correctly, you can start by lying on your back with a small hand towel rolled and placed at the base of your skull instead.

2. Isometric Lateral Neck Flexion

Sit in a chair with good posture. Slightly bend your head to the right and take your right hand placing it on the right side of your face. Push gently against your face to activate the muscles in the side of your right neck. Keep the chin tucked and shoulders back throughout. Repeat this move on both sides. Additionally, you can repeat this exercise while addressing other primary movements like rotation, flexion, and extension.

Hold for 5+ seconds for 10-15 repetitions. Complete 2-3 sets on each side. Do not force the move or hold your breath.

3. Wall Angels

Mid-back stiffness and weakness can exacerbate neck pain associated with arthritis. This exercise restores muscular balance in the upper back and neck. Stand against a wall with the chin tucked, feet 6-12inches from the wall and knees bent. Make sure the back of the head, mid back and butt are touching the wall. Your low back should be touching or only slightly arched away if needed. Bring your arms up to the wall in a touchdown position (arms to 90 degrees and elbows bent). With your palms facing forward, slowly move your hands up toward the ceiling and back down.

Repeat for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets. How high you can move depends on whether you can keep good form. Keep your neck relaxed and away from your ears, avoid arching your back and breathe. If this is too much, simply focus on being able to hold the starting position and build from there.

Back Exercises

Now try these back and core strengthening exercises to get started with managing your low back pain from arthritis. 

1. Double Knee Raise

Lie on your back with both knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Before starting the move, make sure your lower abs are tight (your belly should feel tight as if to protect yourself if someone was going to punch you in the stomach). This will keep your low back from arching. Then, lift both feet off the ground as you slowly bring your knees up to hip level. Hold for a moment before returning to the starting position.

Repeat for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sts. If your back arches at any time it means the move is too hard for you. You can modify to single leg lifts or even just practice tightening your abs and holding. Do not hold your breath.

2. Plank

Move to the floor on your hands and knees. Prop yourself on your forearms at shoulder width apart, elbows directly under the shoulders and forearms parallel to each other. Keep good upper body posture and a straight spine as you shift your weight onto both your knees (easier) or toes. Your low back should not be arched nor the hips flexed with the butt up in the air. Once you’ve found the correct position, focus on keeping the abs tight and breath.

Hold for 10-30 seconds for 2-3 sets. You can build to 60+ seconds with time. If planking on the knees is still too difficult, you can start by standing at an incline against the wall or a table. To progress, you can do a plank on an exercise ball.

3. Bridge

Lie on your back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor at hip width apart. Tighten your abs and squeeze the butt as you lift your hips off the ground as high you can go. If you notice any cramping in your hamstrings or your back hurts, try again with a deep focus on muscle activation at your abs and butt.

Hold for 5 seconds at the top of each repetition and repeat 10 times. Complete 2-3 sets. To progress, you can try a single leg bridge or hold weight at your hips.

Low Impact Aerobic Exercises

When it comes to spine pain, low impact aerobic exercises are a safe bet. These workouts keep your muscles strong and flexible while having minimal adverse affects on your spine joints. Your physical therapist will recommend these for managing pain and losing weight, if needed, to reduce strain on your spine.

1. Swimming

Water aerobics, water walking or jogging, and traditional laps swimming are all great ways to stay active and boost spine health. The buoyancy of the water can feel great on the spine while boosting core strength.

2. Walking

Walking is a great option for general health. Choose a speed and distance that fit your needs and doesn’t exacerbate your symptoms. You should be able to progress your cadence and distance tolerated with time. For added cardio and back support, you can also try using trekking poles.

3. Stationary Cardio

Low impact exercise equipment can get you moving with the benefits of multi-tasking. Whether you want to chat with a friend, read a book, or catch up on some TV- the elliptical, recumbent bike or upright bicycle are all great options.

Resistance Training

Adding resistance strength training to your exercise routine allows you to target specific muscle groups while focusing on a strong core and stability. Resistance exercises can be done with body weight, resistance bands, or a few appropriately weighted dumbbells.

Yoga for Back Pain

Yoga helps to boost flexibility and full body strength, particularly of the core, are great for lumbar and cervical spine health. Many people are intimidated by yoga because they associate it with being flexible. However, it can be modified to work for you and your symptoms.

Yoga for Lower Back Pain

Guide on Yoga for Flexibility

Tips to Ease Pain with Exercise

When choosing exercises for your back pain, start with the basics and then progress from there. If you are having trouble tolerating exercise, try these tips to reduce pain and manage symptoms.

Other Ways to Manage Spinal Arthritis Pain

  • Use home modalities like ice, heat, or a TENs unit before and after exercise
  • Take prescription medications or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs)
  • Use your symptoms as a guide and modify instead of pushing through any pain
  • Start with a gentle warm up, like walking, before starting your program
  • Stretch prior to strengthening to warm up any stiff muscles
  • Consult a physical therapist for personal recommendations to optimize your exercise routine
  • Do less exercise more frequently to start, with the goal of exercising for 20+ minutes 3-4 times per week when you’re ready

Spinal Arthritis Exercises

With a strong base for an exercise program, you can optimize your spine arthritis management. A regular exercise program will restore your confidence in your spine, reduce pain, and get you back to the activities you want to participate in. Unsure of where to start? Consult your doctor or physical therapist. Additionally, if you experience any sudden changes in symptoms, particularly in neural symptoms such as tingling, weakness, or numbness, consult your doctor as soon as possible for further medical advice.

Back & Neck Arthritis Products


Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.

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