Yoga for Scoliosis: An Update?>

Yoga for Scoliosis: An Update

by Andrea Klausner, MS, RD  

If you have scoliosis, certain yoga postures may help decrease the curves of your spine, according to a study in Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation. It expanded on a smaller study from a few years ago.

Scoliosis is an abnormal sideways curvature of the spine, which typically develops in adolescence (adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, AIS) but may also progress in adulthood or develop in adults due to age-related degenerative changes in the spine (degenerative scoliosis, DS). The curves may be in any portion of the spine—lower (lumbar), mid­dle (thoracic), or upper (cervical). There may be either one curve (cre­ating a “C” shape) or two (creating an “S” shape).

Scoliosis can cause back pain and, if severe, can compress organs and cause difficulty breathing, nerve impairment, cardiac complications, and other problems. Conventional management includes active surveillance (that is, keeping an eye on whether the condition progresses), bracing, and surgery. Physical therapy (including the Schroth Method), various exercises, and movement therapies like the Alexander technique can also help manage the condition.

Putting yoga to the test

For the latest study, 49 people with DS and 25 with AIS—but not previous spinal surgery or other musculoskeletal or neuromuscular disorders—were evaluated before and after undergoing a home yoga program that consisted of doing either one or two poses as instructed, at least every other day for 6 to 11 months. Ages ranged from 8 to 80.

All the participants had scoliotic curves in the lower half of the spine and did a modified side plank (Vasisthasana) pose with the con­vex side of the lumbar or thoracolumbar scoliotic curve down. The modification was to hold the upper ribs about a half-inch higher than in the classic pose. The pose was further modified if needed to accom­modate any physical limitations participants had.

Participants who also had scoliotic curves in the upper half of the spine did the modified side plank plus a half-moon (Ardha Chandrasana) pose with the help of a belt. The half-moon—a balancing pose with one leg raised—was done with the convex side of the cervi­cothoracic or upper thoracic scoliotic curve down. All the poses were held as long as possible—which turned out to be from 30 seconds to three minutes.

With just a few exceptions, participants showed significant decreases in their curves compared to baseline, as seen on spinal X-rays. For example, in people with DS, scoliotic curves in the lower half of the spine decreased nearly 24 percent, on average, over a period of 10 to 11 months. Curves in the upper half of the spine decreased nearly 28 percent. Two people with DS and four people with AIS showed no improvements, however—and two people with DS had worsening of curves.

The researchers hypothesized that the poses may help straighten the spine by strengthening the musculature on the convex side of the curve. They also noted that though the study had no control group and relied on patient self-reports of compliance, the results were better than those typically seen with conservative treatments, including bracing. More study is needed to see if greater improvements would occur with continuing practice and whether the benefits are maintained when the exercises are reduced or stopped.

Straight advice

If you have (or suspect you have) scoliosis, you should be medically evaluated. If you want to try the yoga poses, they should be done, at least initially, under the supervision of a physiatrist, physical therapist, or other health care practitioner who is trained in the treatment of spinal disorders and also specifically knowledgeable about yoga practices, since it’s critical that each pose be done with correct form and on the proper side. If done on the wrong side, they could worsen the curves, as was seen in one young study participant (though this was reversed when she corrected the mistake). The poses can be modified for people with weakness, severe arthritis, shoulder instability, or other issues—but if you have severe scoliosis, you should be under the care of a specialist and follow his or her advice about yoga.

This research is still preliminary and needs to be replicated in more people. But in the meantime, something as simple as this is worth dis­cussing with your spine specialist. The National Scoliosis Foundation lists 11 other yoga poses that might help with scoliosis.

This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.

Also see Straight Advice for Scoliosis.