Scoliosis causes the spine to curve sideways, causing pain, weakness, and changes in how a person walks. Exercise and stretching are vital components of treatment.
This article looks at what scoliosis is and looks at some stretches and exercises that may help.
Scoliosis is a condition that causes the spine to curve sideways.
In a person with scoliosis, the spine curves to one side. The rib cage may also twist to the same side.
Scoliosis impacts an estimated 6–9 million people in the United States.
Anyone can get scoliosis, but it is more common in children older than 11 years of age.
Typical symptoms of scoliosis in children and teens may
- uneven shoulders
- one hip appearing higher than the other
- one shoulder blade is more prominent than the other
- when bending forward, one side of the rib cage is higher than the other
- in severe scoliosis, there may be back pain
There are three types of scoliosis: idiopathic, congenital, and neuromuscular.
Congenital scoliosis is when an injury or abnormality is present during pregnancy or birth.
Muscle spasms or tightness can cause neuromuscular scoliosis. Neuromuscular disorders, such as cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis, can also cause it.
Most cases of scoliosis are idiopathic, meaning they appear to have no specific cause.
However, medical experts have noticed some trends. Risk factors of scoliosis include:
- Age: Scoliosis is more common in children approaching adolescence.
- Sex: People assigned female at birth are more likely to develop scoliosis. However, under 3 years of age, males are more likely to develop it.
- Genetic factors: Sometimes, scoliosis runs in families.
- Neuromuscular conditions: Conditions, such as cerebral palsy, can misalign vertebrae.
In mild cases, people treating their scoliosis with specific exercises and stretches can prevent the need for surgery.
However, a person with scoliosis should speak with a doctor or physical therapist before doing stretches and exercises for scoliosis. They may be able to suggest personalized exercises to try.
The correct scoliosis exercises depend on the location of a person’s scoliosis curve.
People with lumbar scoliosis should focus on exercising their lower back. In contrast, those with thoracic scoliosis should focus more on exercising their thoracic spine and upper back.
Doctors may recommend the following exercises and stretches for people with scoliosis.
A pelvic tilt will help stretch tight muscles in the hips and lower back.
To do a pelvic tilt, a person should:
- Lie on their back with their feet flat on the floor and their knees bent.
- Tighten their stomach muscles while flattening their back toward the floor.
- Hold for 5 seconds while breathing normally.
- Do 2 sets of 10.
A person can strengthen their lower back with arm and leg raises.
To do the raises, a person should:
- Lie on their front with their forehead to the ground.
- Extend their arms straight over their head with their palms or fists on the ground. Keep both legs straight.
- Raise their arms and legs off of the ground.
- Hold for a full breath, then lower their arms and legs back down.
- Aim for 15 repetitions.
The Cat-Cow is a yoga pose, and it can help keep the spine flexible and pain-free.
To do the Cat-Cow pose, a person should:
- Begin on their hands and knees, ensuring their back is level and their head and neck are comfortable.
- Inhale deeply while drawing their abdominal muscles in and up, arching their back.
- Exhale while releasing their abdominal muscles, dropping their back, letting their belly fall, and lifting their head toward the ceiling.
- Do 2 sets of 10.
The bird-dog is another yoga-inspired exercise.
To do this exercise, a person should:
- Begin on their hands and knees with a straight back.
- Place their hands directly under their shoulders and their knees under their 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.
This stretch focuses on the latissimus dorsi — the largest muscle in the upper body.
Thoracic scoliosis directly affects these muscles. Lumbar scoliosis can also cause tightness in the latissimus dorsi.
To do a latissimus dorsi stretch, a person should:
- Stand with good posture in a neutral position.
- Keep their feet shoulder-width apart and their knees very slightly bent.
- Reaching over their head with both hands, grab the right wrist with the left hand.
- Bend slightly toward the right side until they feel a stretch in the left side of their body.
- Hold for one to two breaths, then gently pull with the left hand to straighten and return to the original position.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
- Do 5–10 repetitions on each side.
Strong abdominal muscles can help take some pressure off of the back muscles and promote good posture.
To do an abdominal press, a person should:
- Lie on their back with their feet flat on the ground, and their knees bent.
- Keep the back in a neutral, tension-free position.
- Raise both feet off of the floor until their thighs and feet form a 90-degree angle, and their knees are above the hips.
- Use their hands to push their knees away while simultaneously pulling the knees toward their hands with their abdominal muscles. This is a static exercise, meaning the legs and arms should not move when pressing.
- Hold for three full breaths and then relax.
- Do 2 sets of 10.
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 a good posture naturally.
To have a good posture when standing, a person should:
- Drop their shoulders down and back.
- Position the ears over the shoulders.
- Slightly tuck their chin in, so it is not jutting forward or too far down.
- Draw the stomach in slightly.
- Unlock, or bend the knees slightly.
When sitting, keep the back straight and the ears over the shoulders. A person should keep their legs 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 in pain or under stress.
For example, the Scientific Exercises Approach to Scoliosis (SEAS) is an individualized program that trains a person to correct movement issues and change their spinal position.
The Schroth method is another type of physical therapy for people with scoliosis. It focuses on corrective exercises and breathing techniques.
The most suitable exercise program depends on the type and degree of a person’s scoliosis. A person should consult a doctor and a physical therapist to determine which exercises suit their specific needs.
If a doctor recommends a specific exercise program, a person should ask if it is safe to do other home exercises alongside the program.
Some activities and exercises can worsen scoliosis symptoms or increase the risk of secondary injuries. People with scoliosis should avoid:
- Keeping their neck bent forward with their head facing downward, such as when using a smartphone.
- Playing football and other high-contact sports. They can be dangerous for people with scoliosis.
- Repeatedly extending the torso, which can occur in some yoga positions, ballet steps, and gymnastic 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 worsening, reduce pain, and improve mobility. The right bracing strategy depends on a person’s scoliosis type, so talk with 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 may greatly improve the quality of life for a person with the condition.
Scoliosis ranges from mild to severe. Sometimes, observation and home exercises are sufficient to correct a spinal curve.
In more severe cases, a person may need additional treatment, including bracing, surgery, or 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 course of treatment.