Exercises to Avoid With Scoliosis

If you're wondering about the do's and don'ts of physical activity when you or someone you know has scoliosis, you're not alone. According to John Hopkins University, about 3 million Americans are diagnosed with this common spinal condition every year. For those with scoliosis, exercises to avoid are only one part of a much bigger picture, however. While certain positions can further stress the spine, exercises ranging from cardio to core workouts can actually help alleviate some symptoms of scoliosis.

Though some positions aggravate scoliosis, not all exercise is off the table. (Image: svetikd/E+/GettyImages)

General Positions to Avoid

Before you make a list of specific scoliosis exercises to avoid, it helps to know the general types of positions to steer clear of if you suffer from the condition. The Scoliosis SOS Clinic of London warns against putting your body in these types of positions if you have a scoliotic spine or other spinal conditions:

  • Back Bends: Positions that encourage you to bend backward so that your shoulders extend past your glutes (such as common yoga poses you perform by placing your hands and feet on the ground and making a U shape with your back) can strain the scoliotic spine.
  • Lumbar Hyperextension: This can include any variety of positions that put stress on the lower back, particularly by excessively curving the lower back. These types of positions encourage lumbar compression, making them a no-go if you have scoliosis or spondylolisthesis, which often results in spinal curvature.
  • Neck Hyperflexion: Neck hyperflexion occurs when you push your neck beyond its typical range of motion, moving it forward and downward. (Imagine forming a 90-degree angle between your neck and sternum.) Putting that kind of pressure on your neck's small vertebrae can increase the strain on the weakened parts of your spine, potentially worsening scoliotic curvature. So you should probably cut back on all that texting.
  • Thoracic Rotation: Thoracic rotation involves rotating your shoulders and upper trunk while your lower trunk stays stationary. Holding such a position for a prolonged amount of time applies potentially harmful torsion to the spine.

Scoliosis Exercises to Avoid

As a general rule, high-intensity or high-impact exercises and competitive sports aren't a great fit with scoliosis. For example, competitive swimming can heighten curve progression by flattening the thoracic spine, and high-contact sports, like football, hockey or rugby, not only put scoliosis sufferers at a higher risk of spine injury, but they can also trigger curvature in those who have a genetic predisposition toward scoliosis.

Intense dancing and gymnastics, such as those that involve lots of high jumping, ballet maneuvers or bouncing on a trampoline may also progress the spine's curvature. This is because these energetic movements often cause the vertebrae to rotate further into the hollow of the scoliosis curve. Likewise, long-distance running on a hard surface compresses the spine, though running about 400 meters at a time on a softer surface (such as a track) is safer.

Tip

Low-impact dancing without a lot of jumping or back bending and sprinting on a track typically do not pose risk to those with scoliosis.

Scoliosis and weightlifting — specifically, heavy weightlifting — do not always make a good pair. Heavy weightlifting with scoliosis may further aggravate compression of the spine, simply due to increasing gravitational pull. In particular, avoid heavy weightlifting workouts that compress the lumbar spine, such as squats, dead lifts and overhead presses. While scoliosis and bodybuilding aren't an ideal combo, light- and medium-weight dumbbells and kettlebells can often be safe for exercising with scoliosis.

Potentially Beneficial Exercises

Those who have scoliosis will reap the same myriad benefits from regular exercise as everyone else, but when dealing with scoliosis in adults, exercises of a particular variety are key. That's because certain workouts help strengthen the muscles that, over time, are more likely to become weakened due to curvature of the spine. These exercises also avoid the types of positions and stress that can intensify the symptoms of scoliosis.

For instance, stretches performed with balance trainers or balance boards, foam rollers, stability balls and wedges target a wide variety of muscle groups and areas — from strengthening the abs, back and core to improving balance — and can also be beneficial to those with scoliosis, as can noncompetitive activities, like swimming, on-road cycling, walking, skating, skiing and elliptical workouts.

According to a 2015 post on the Duke Health Blog, in addition to professionally administered physical therapy treatments, "cardiovascular exercise, and core-strengthening exercises like yoga and Pilates can alleviate some scoliosis symptoms." Naturally, yoga positions that encourage back bends, lumbar hyperextension, neck hyperflexion and thoracic rotation are exceptions to this rule, as are other exercises you've already put on your "avoid" list. Duke casts a wide net, but the pros at sources such as Veritas Health, ScoliSmart Clinics, CLEAR Scoliosis Institute and the American Council on Exercise recommend a variety of specific scoliosis-friendly exercises and stretches to incorporate into your regular routine:

  • Arm and leg raises (target: lower back and core)
  • Bar hangs (target: shoulders, grip strength)
  • Bodyweight squats (target: thighs, glutes and core)
  • Hip bridges (target: hips, pelvis, glutes)
  • Kettlebell suitcase dead lifts (target: lats, abs)
  • Kneeling cable anti-rotations (target: obliques)
  • Kneeling cable pulldowns (target: abs)
  • Latissimus stretch (target: latissimus dorsi)
  • Pelvic tilt (target: abdominal muscles)
  • Stability ball crunches (target: abdominal muscles)
  • Static chest stretches (target: pectorals)
  • Three-point dumbbell rows (target: rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, trapezius)

Warning

If you are affected by scoliosis, always consult your doctor or certified physical trainer before incorporating new exercises into your workout routine.

Scoliosis and Yoga

When it comes to yoga, certain poses may help scoliosis suffers bring their spine closer to a neutral alignment. These poses include:

  • Cat-cow
  • Deergha Swasam (three-part breath)
  • Forearm side plank
  • Mountain pose
  • Parsva Balasana (thread the needle pose)
  • Side-bending tabletop
  • Side-lying Savasana
  • Standing side bend
  • Standing side glide
  • Tabletop to plank
  • Upward-reaching mountain pose
  • Wall climb
  • Wall fall

Though certain yoga poses can benefit those with scoliosis, certain poses should be avoided:

  • Cobra (including Bhujangasana, Naga-asana)
  • Bow pose (Dhanurasana)
  • Half moon (Ardha Chandrasana)
  • Locust (Salabhasana)
  • Scorpion (Vrischikasana)
  • Upward dog (Urdhava Mukha Svanasana)
  • Wheel (Chakrasana, Urdhva Dhanurasana)
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