Why Should I Go to Physical Therapy for Back Pain?

Question: I have spinal stenosis, and I've been told by my doctor that doing certain exercises will help. Does that mean I have to go to physical therapy, or can I just do these exercises at home?
—Evergreen, CO

Answer: The quick answer to your question is: yes and yes.

Woman exercising with a physical therapy bandYou should go to physical therapy, but one of the goals of therapy is to teach you exercises and stretches you can do at home so that you can keep your body (and back) healthy and strong.

You may be saying, "Well, I can find information online about what exercises to do for spinal stenosis. Why can't I just do those?"

Or perhaps you have a friend who was also diagnosed with spinal stenosis and went to physical therapy; why can't you follow their exercise plan?

A physical therapist will create a personalized plan for you, taking into consideration your pain, your physical fitness, your time constraints, and your diagnosis.

Yes, you can find exercises online, but those will be general recommendations. The best, most effective way to treat your back pain with exercise is to visit a physical therapist. Then you'll have the assurance that the exercises you're doing won't further injure your back or aggravate your pain.

As for simply copying a friend's back exercises and stretches—even if they have the same diagnosis as you—I strongly discourage this. You would never consider taking someone else's prescription medication; it was written especially for them. An exercise plan created by a physical therapist is a prescription, so you shouldn't take it as your own plan. In fact, doing exercises that were intended for someone else may actually aggravate your spinal condition.

I recommend making an appointment with a physical therapist soon; your doctor should be able to refer you to one. With a physical therapist, you will learn exercises and stretches that may help reduce your pain from spinal stenosis. How many times you need to visit the PT is determined by your needs, but keep in mind that the ultimate goal is teaching you self-care techniques you can safely do at home.