How can yoga help scoliosis?

In order to understand the promise of yoga in the treatment of scoliosis, it is important to understand precisely what scoliosis is, its degrees of severity, who it affects, and what treatments have been previously used to treat the condition. Once we understand the medical background of treatment, we are more likely to be excited by this new alternative, non-invasive approach to treating curvature of the spine. Though more research is

required, a new potential treatment for back problems and spine procedures is always welcome.

Scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, is a common troubling condition, affecting 7.5 million Americans. The spinal column of individuals with scoliosis is abnormally curved instead of vertical, causing an asymmetrical posture that can precipitate a number of other physical problems. Scoliosis can manifest itself in varying types and degrees. Medical terminology refers to “C” or “S” curves to describe the abnormality, and a patient may have a more or less severe curve. If the backbone curve deviates at least 10 percent from the norm, scoliosis is diagnosed.

Causes of Scoliosis

In some cases, scoliosis is congenital, resulting from birth defects in the spine. Less commonly, it results from neuromuscular conditions, like muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy, or from spinal injuries or infections. Years ago, diseases such as polio and tuberculosis were responsible for many cases of the condition. Nowadays, because modern medicine is able to prevent some of the causes of scoliosis, most cases of the condition (80 percent) are designated “idiopathic,” meaning their causes are unknown.

Risk Factors for Scoliosis

Strangely, congenital scoliosis does not appear to be a directly inherited trait, since it is rare to find identical twins who both have scoliosis. On the other hand, there does seem to be some type of genetic link to many cases of idiopathic scoliosis. Typically, scoliosis begins in both male and female children between the ages of 10 and 15. Over time, however, scoliosis is eight times more likely to worsen and require medical treatment in females.

Treatments for Scoliosis

Cases in which children have a small degree of scoliosis (under 20 percent curvature) are generally treated by careful monitoring to make sure the condition is not worsening. Children diagnosed with a significant degree of scoliosis (over 30 percent curvature) are considered at much greater risk and are prescribed back braces that they must wear for most of the day throughout their childhood years. These braces, designed to help straighten the spine, are uncomfortable physically and typically cause self-consciousness and emotional distress as well. In addition to wearing back braces, children with scoliosis are expected to do about 30 minutes of prescribed physical exercises each day on an ongoing (lifetime) basis. When a case of scoliosis is extreme, surgery may be performed. Unfortunately, scoliosis surgeries have a track record of only nominal success.

How Yoga Can Help

Remarkably, after so many years of using the same basic treatments for scoliosis, a new treatment plan that is far less cumbersome or invasive than previously used methods, has appeared on the scene. It is now apparent that yoga, already touted for its many health benefits, is an effective treatment for patients with idiopathic and degenerative scoliosis.

Because scoliosis results in asymmetry, researchers have been looking into asymmetrical strengthening of muscles on the convex side of the curve as a means of treatment. An article in Global Advances in Health and Medicine reports that one particular yoga pose, known as the “side plank pose,” has been found to make corrections to the spine, maneuvering it into a more normal, vertical position. This treatment plan is simple and intuitive — using an imbalanced strengthening pose to correct an imbalanced spinal curvature.

The Positive Results

The research study demonstrating the positive effect of the side plank pose involved 25 participants with scoliosis of widely ranging degrees (6 to 120). The patients were taught the yoga side plank pose and were instructed to perform it for only 10 to 20 seconds per day (!) for the first week. Importantly, they were taught to perform the pose only on the convex side of their spine’s abnormal curve, so that they were exerting a pull on the backbone towards straightening. After the first week, they were told to hold the pose as long as they could once a day. Over the study period, the mean average time of holding the side plank was reported at 1.5 minutes daily on an average of 6.1 days per week, for an average of 6.8 months.

Amazingly, with this seemingly minimal intervention the improvements were significant. Measured by spinal X-rays taken prior to the yoga treatment and then additional spinal X-rays taken between 3 and 22 months later, an improvement of 32 percent on the scoliotic curve was measured. In 19 fully compliant patients, the mean improvement rose to 40.9 percent. Although based on a small study, these astonishing results provide indications that a new, non-invasive, easily available treatment for scoliosis has appeared on the scene.