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Does Yoga Help Scoliosis?

by
author image Martin Booe
Martin Booe writes about health, wellness and the blues. His byline has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Bon Appetit. He lives in Los Angeles.
Does Yoga Help Scoliosis?
Scoliosis is an abnormal sideways curvature of the spine. Photo Credit oceandigital/iStock/Getty Images

Scoliosis is a muscoskeletal disorder that causes the spine to curve sideways. Conventional treatments for scoliosis include wearing braces (after bone growth has ceased) and spinal fusion surgery, so it's not surprising that there's a lot of interest in alternative ways of dealing with problem, such as yoga. While yoga has not been widely studied as a therapy for scoliosis, there is strong preliminary evidence that it can play a beneficial role in managing it.

Read More: The Best Yoga Moves for Your Back

Understanding Scoliosis

Scoliosis usually develops in infancy or early childhood, but it can also occur in adults. It affects 2 to 3 percent of the population. Most cases of scoliosis are fairly minor, but in some cases it can be disabling. Males and females are equally likely to get scoliosis, but females are eight times more likely to develop symptoms that require treatment.

The spine's misalignment can put pressure on the spinal cord, causing numbness, pain in the lower extremities and loss of strength. In severe cases, pressure on the spinal cord itself may cause loss of coordination in the muscles of the legs making it difficult to walk normally.

The Medical Evidence for Yoga

There is a lack of research regarding yoga's effectiveness for scoliosis, but at least one study provides promising preliminary evidence that it can be highly effective in improving scoliosis or straightening the S-shaped curve in the back, including a 2014 study in Global Advances in Health and Medicine. In it, 25 participants were asked to perform the classic Iyengar pose Side Plank, but with a slight modification—they were asked to elevate their ribs vertically. Participants held the post for an average of a minute and a half daily. After 7 months, radiographs to measure their spinal curve indicated an average improvement (lessening of the curve) by 32 percent. In addition, those with secondary curves experienced improvements averaging almost 30 percent. The researchers speculated that the side plank pose helped straighten the spine by strengthening muscles on the convex side of the curve.

Side plank was shown to effectively reduce scoliosis-induced curvature by 32 percent.
Side plank was shown to effectively reduce scoliosis-induced curvature by 32 percent. Photo Credit f9photos/iStock/Getty Images

What the Yogis Say

Not surprisingly, yogis have little doubt that their 5,000-year-old practice can do a crooked body good. In fact, there is no small number of people whose own scoliosis led them to take up yoga and become instructors themselves. There are also quite a few yoga instructors who specialize in scoliosis. The goal in yoga is to lengthen the spine, stretch the tight muscles and strengthen the week ones. "When dealing with scoliosis, you have to respect the curve and work with its nuances to create length without any compression," writes Rachel Krentzman in her book, "Scoliosis, Yoga Therapy, and the Art of Letting Go." It's also important to tell your yoga instructor that you have scoliosis.

Even subtle practices can affect your quality of life with scoliosis. Pranayama — breathing exercises — can be a powerful practice for opening up the lungs, because compressed intercostal muscles can restrict breathing to one side or another.

Poses that involve rotation need to be approached gently and cautiously; depending on the direction of your S-curve, one direction will come quite easily and the other very difficult. To begin, though, stretches that elongate the spine such as Cat/Cow pose, Child's pose and Triangle Pose are a good place to start.

Read More: How to Lengthen the Spine with Yoga

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