Spine Arthritis Management: Relieve Back and Neck Pain with 7 Top Exercises

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

If you have arthritis of the spine, you probably know how painful and debilitating it can be. One of the most important things you can do to manage your condition is to stay active and exercise regularly. It can also help reduce pain and improve your range of motion.

To get you started, we’ve put together a list of the best exercises for back and neck arthritis. These exercises are specifically designed to stretch and strengthen the muscles and joints in your spine. Let’s dive in!

Symptoms of arthritis of the spine

Arthritis of the spine, also called spinal arthritis, is the swelling of the facet joints (the joints that make it easy for your back and neck to bend forward and backward).

Spinal arthritis may be a result of infection, wear and tear, or many other medical conditions. The swelling of the facet joints affects the spots where the tendons and ligaments are attached to the spine’s bones. Arthritis in the neck or back can be painful and can cause stiffness of the neck and lower back pain.

Even though back pain is a common symptom of arthritis, not all people with arthritis of the spine experience it.

The symptoms of spinal arthritis vary from person to person depending on where the arthritis is in their spine, but generally, they may experience some of the following:

  • Stiffness in the spine that makes it hard to turn your neck or bend your back, especially after getting out of bed in the morning
  • Neck and back pain, particularly with arthritis in the lower back
  • Headaches (common with arthritis in the neck)
  • A crunching or grinding feeling of bones rubbing when the joint is moved — mainly noticeable in the neck
  • Warmth and redness around the affected joint
  • Tenderness on the spine when pressed
  • Swelling, pain, and stiffness in other parts of the body
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Arthritis in the neck may cause difficulty swallowing
  • Numbness and pain in your legs or arms if nerves are affected

The stiffness is often worse after waking up, may become tolerable with movement, and then worsens in the evening. The pain experienced in the morning results from the buildup of fluid in the joint due to immobility overnight, hence more swelling. You can also experience arthritis in your upper back close to your neck, making it difficult to bend and turn your neck or back.

A woman massaging her neck because of of arthritis of the spine

If the pain you experience is severe and unbearable, it would be best to visit your doctor for proper diagnosis, management, and treatment. Your doctor may carry out some tests and physical examinations on your back or neck to confirm the origin of your pain.

What causes back and neck arthritis?

The causes of arthritis in the neck and back depend on your type of arthritis. Other than wear and tear of the cartilage around joints and autoimmune triggers, the exact cause of arthritis of the spine is unknown. Also, some types of spinal arthritis may have genetic links, which means it may run in the family.

Some people have a higher risk of developing arthritis because of risk factors such as:

  • Previous spinal injury or trauma, especially at a younger age
  • Obesity
  • Lifestyle factors like lack of exercise or smoking
  • Defective joints at birth
  • Jobs involving constant stress of a particular joint
  • Old age
  • Certain medical conditions like diabetes, psoriasis, Lyme disease, and tuberculosis

How can exercise help people with arthritis of the spine?

Exercise is essential for people with arthritis of the spine. Walking around or stretching when your painful joints are already bugging you may seem overwhelming, but exercise improves flexibility and reduces fatigue and joint pain.

You don’t need to stretch like a gymnast or run a marathon to reduce arthritis symptoms. Simple and moderate exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight and ease the pain. When arthritis in your upper back tries to keep you immobile, exercise can keep you moving.

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Although you may think exercise will intensify your joint pain, that’s not likely to happen. On the contrary, avoiding activity can make your joints stiff and more painful. Lack of exercise may weaken the tissues supporting your muscles, creating more stress on your joints.

Exercise can help with arthritis of the spine without hurting your joints, and some of the benefits of exercise include:

  • Maintenance of bone strength
  • Enhanced balance
  • Strengthened muscles surrounding your joints
  • Improved quality of life
  • An excellent way to control your weight
  • An easier good night’s sleep

Best exercises for neck arthritis and lower and upper back pain

While exercise is considered helpful and safe for most people with arthritis of the spine, it would be best to talk to your doctor or a physical therapist about including exercise in your treatment options.

Your doctor can work with you to find the best exercise plan that provides you with the most benefits and the least stress on your joints. These exercises might include aerobics, strengthening, range-of-motion, and other daily activities that can help.

When exercising, it’s important to follow tips to protect your joints to avoid overworking your muscles and worsening your pain.

Here are a few of the best exercises for neck arthritis and lower and upper back pain:

1. Head tilt (side to side)

For this exercise, it’s best to sit down or stand up straight to help keep your balance. Gently tilt your head toward your left shoulder with your right shoulder down. Tense your neck muscles and hold this position for about 5 to 10 seconds before returning your head to the center. Repeat the same process on your right side by tilting your head toward your right shoulder. You can repeat the whole process about five times.

A man at the desk doing neck exercises for his neck arthritis

2. Head turn

This is good exercise for neck arthritis. Sit in a chair or stand straight. Slowly turn your head to the left while keeping your chin straight and hold the position for 5 to 10 seconds. Then return to the center. Repeat the exercise by turning your head to the right. Hold for another 5 to 10 seconds before returning to the center. Repeat the position on each side five times. You can try exercising while lying down if you feel uncomfortable sitting or standing.

3. Shoulder rolls

While exercising to get rid of arthritis in your neck and upper back, don’t leave your shoulders out. Exercising your shoulders strengthens the muscles that support your neck. Shoulder rolls are easy and help to keep your neck joints and shoulder fluid. All you have to do is stand on your feet or sit in a chair with your feet shoulder width apart and smoothly roll your shoulders up, down, and back. Repeat this motion five times. Then reverse the movement by rolling your shoulders up, down, and forward five times.

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4. Chin to chest

Stand or sit with good posture. If you have trouble balancing, it would be best to sit down. Tilt your head downward to rest your chin on your chest and tense your neck muscles to hold for five to 10 seconds. Repeat this five times.

5. Knees-to-chest stretch

Knees-to-chest stretch is one of the best exercises to increase your back’s flexibility and strength. It’s best to practice this exercise on a mat or blanket on the floor. Lying on your back, use your hands to pull one knee toward your chest and hold for 15 seconds before returning your foot to the floor. Do about 15 lifts with each leg. Do not force this exercise.

6. Side stretches

The muscles in your back help protect your spine, and when you work these muscles through simple exercises, it can help keep them strong. Side stretches using light weights will target your back muscles without applying much strain on your stiff joints. Standing in an upright position, hold one weight at a time and bend from your waist to the side, stretching as far as you can without feeling pain. Then slowly raise yourself back up. About 10 times on each side is enough and can also be done without weights.

7. Gentle spine twist

You can do this by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor while keeping your shoulders firm on the floor. Then gently roll your bent knees to one side and stay in position for 10 to 15 seconds. Return to your original position and do the same twist on the other side. You can do this once or twice daily to help with arthritis that causes lower back pain.

Wrapping up

If you have arthritis in your lower back, upper back, and/or neck, no one needs to tell you how painful and restricting it can be. But with some simple exercises, you can ease the pain, enhance the flexibility of stiff joints, strengthen your muscles, and improve your quality of life.

If your lower back pain affects how you live, and you wish to include exercises in your treatment plan, reach out to your doctor. They will help you choose the best exercise options to relieve your pain.

February 28, 2023