Scoliosis causes the spine to curve sideways, causing pain, weakness, and changes in the way a person walks. Exercise and stretching are vital components of treatment.
In mild cases, people can treat scoliosis with specific exercises and stretches alone, eliminating the need for surgery.
While some medical conditions can cause scoliosis, the most typical form of scoliosis is adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. This form of scoliosis develops while a person is still growing and affects 2–3% of the population.
While research has found evidence supporting specific exercises for scoliosis, it is a good idea for a person with scoliosis to speak to a doctor or physical therapist about the best stretches and exercises for them.
The correct scoliosis exercises depend on the location of the scoliosis curve. People with lumbar scoliosis should focus on exercising the lower back, while those with thoracic scoliosis need to exercise the shoulders.
Doctors may recommend the following exercises and stretches for people with scoliosis:
1. Pelvic tilts
A pelvic tilt will help stretch tight muscles in the hips and lower back. To do a pelvic tilt:
- Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor and knees bent.
- Tighten your stomach muscles while flattening your back toward the floor.
- Hold for 5 seconds, while breathing normally.
- Do two sets of 10.
2. Arm and leg raises
People can strengthen their lower back with arm and leg raises. To do the raises:
- Lie on your front with your forehead to the ground.
- Extend your arms out over your head, with the palms positioned flat on the ground. Keep your legs straight.
- Raise one arm off of the ground.
- Hold for one or two full breaths, then lower the arm back down.
- Repeat with each arm and each leg.
- Aim for 15 repetitions on each limb.
The Cat-Camel is a yoga pose. It can help keep the spine flexible and pain-free. To do the Cat-Camel pose:
- Begin on the hands and knees, ensuring your back is level, and your head and neck are comfortable.
- Breathe deeply, then draw the abdominal muscles in and up, arching your back.
- Exhale and release the abdominal muscles, dropping the back, letting the belly fall, and lifting the head toward the ceiling.
- Do two sets of 10.
The Bird-Dog is another yoga-inspired exercise. To do this exercise:
- Begin on the hands and knees with your back straight.
- Place your hands directly under your shoulders, with the knees directly under the hips.
- Extend one arm straight out and forward while extending the opposite leg straight back.
- Breathe normally and hold for 5 seconds.
- Repeat with the opposite arm and leg.
- Do 10–15 repetitions on each side.
5. Latissimus dorsi stretch
People can stretch the latissimus dorsi — the largest muscle in the upper body — with this stretch. Thoracic scoliosis directly affects these muscles. Lumbar scoliosis can also cause back tension that extends up to the latissimus dorsi.
To do a latissimus dorsi stretch:
- Stand with good posture in a neutral position.
- Keep the feet shoulder-width apart and the knees very slightly bent.
- Reaching over your head with both hands, grab your right wrist with your left hand.
- Bend slightly toward the right side until you feel a stretch in the left side of the body.
- Hold for one to two breaths, then push with the left foot to return to the original position.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
- Do 5–10 repetitions on each side.
6. Abdominal press
Having strong abdominal muscles can help take some of the pressure off of the back muscle. It can also help a person maintain good posture.
To do an abdominal press:
- Lie on your back with your feet flat on the ground and knees bent.
- Keep the back in a neutral, tension-free position.
- Raise both lower legs off the floor until they reach a 90-degree angle.
- To engage the abdominal muscles, use your hands to push down on the knees while pulling the knees toward the hands at the same time. This is a static exercise, meaning the legs and arms should not move when you are pressing.
- Hold for three full breaths and then relax.
- Do two sets of 10.
7. Practicing good posture
Good posture can reduce pain and muscle tension. Several times a day, a person can realign their body to help them learn to stand with good posture naturally.
To have a good posture when standing:
- Drop your shoulders down and back.
- Position the ears over the shoulders
- Slightly tuck your chin in so that it is not jutting forward or too far down.
- Draw your stomach in slightly
- Unlock the knees slightly.
When sitting, keep the back straight and the ears over the shoulders. The legs should be in a neutral position and not crossed.
It can help to scan the body for signs of tension. For example, some people unconsciously tense their shoulders or lean slightly to one side, especially when they are in pain or under stress.
Doctors and researchers have developed several targeted scoliosis programs. For example, the Scientific Exercises Approach to Scoliosis (SEAS) is an individualized program that teaches a person to steadily correct movement issues and change the position of their spine.
The most suitable exercise program depends on the type and degree of scoliosis. If a doctor recommends a specific exercise program, ask if it is safe to do other home exercises and what exercises to avoid.
Some activities and exercises can make scoliosis symptoms worse or increase the risk of secondary injuries. People with scoliosis should avoid:
- Keeping the neck bent forward, so the head faces down, such as when using a smartphone.
- Playing football and other high-contact sports are dangerous for people with scoliosis.
- Ballet and gymnastics may also injure the thoracic spine.
- Repeatedly extending the torso, which can occur in some yoga positions, ballet steps, and gymnastics maneuvers.
- Exposing the spine to repeated impacts from jumping or running. Common culprits include trampolines, horseback riding, and long-distance running on hard surfaces.
In addition to exercise, a range of home management solutions may help. These include:
- Bracing. Bracing may prevent a spinal curve from getting worse, reduce pain, and improve mobility. The right bracing strategy depends on the type of scoliosis a person has, so talk to a doctor before trying a brace.
- Choosing the right furniture. An ergonomic chair or mattress may better support the spine and back, reducing pain.
- Massage. Some people find that massage helps with scoliosis pain.
- Chiropractic treatment: Visiting a chiropractor who specializes in scoliosis can help relieve discomfort and pain. Although this will not cure scoliosis, it can greatly improve quality of life for a person with the condition.
Scoliosis ranges from mild to severe. In some cases, observation and home exercises are sufficient to correct a spinal curve.
In more severe cases, a person may need additional treatment, including bracing, surgery, and physical therapy.
Because scoliosis can affect a person’s mobility and overall well-being, it is vital to see a scoliosis expert before deciding on a treatment course.