Yoga for Scoliosis: Reap the Benefits

A 2021 study of adolescents says that yoga can actually reverse scoliosis.

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What is yoga? Is it:

  • A physical, mental, and spiritual health practice
  • A low-impact way to gain strength and flexibility
  • A meditative method to improve concentration

Trick question; it’s all of those things, and more.

Woman doing yoga for scoliosisYoga may actually be able to reverse scoliosis in teens, suggests study.

Yoga also holds benefits for back pain. One 2017 study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) proved that yoga eases moderate to severe low back pain, with findings suggesting that a structured yoga program can even replace physical therapy. Several other studies have had similar conclusions.

Loren Fishman, MD, Medical Director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Assistant Professor at Columbia University Medical School explains that yoga not only helps back pain but can even prevent it in the first place.

“And on top of that, it increases flexibility especially in the hamstrings and spine and provides healthy motion of spinal facet joints,” he says, adding that yoga stretches spastic muscles, draws bulging discs back in line and away from nerves, narrows obstructions to reduce spinal stenosis, and straightens scoliosis.

In fact, yoga is now being proven to relieve symptoms of scoliosis, which is seen in recently published research helmed by Dr. Fishman that studied adolescents.

What Is Scoliosis, and How Does It Impact Adolescents?

Your spine is curved. It’s supposed to be. It has two curves toward the front of the body—called lordosis—in the neck (cervical spine) and lower back (lumbar spine). The mid-back (thoracic spine) bows out, a curve called kyphosis.

These curves are natural and healthy, but a curve to one or both sides is not. That’s scoliosis, and it creates in the spine a “C” or “S” shape when viewed straight on. Many times, the curve is mild enough not to cause any symptoms, but not always. Symptoms can include

  • Uneven shoulders and hips
  • Numbness or pain in the legs
  • Difficulty walking
  • Fatigue

A more specific form is adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, which Dr. Fishman notes is scoliosis without a known cause and experienced in the 12- to 18-year-old age group. According to the Scoliosis Research Society, it’s actually the most common type of scoliosis.

Studying Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis and Yoga

As the author of 12 books and the author and/or editor of 99 academic articles, Dr. Fishman is recognized the world over for his exhaustive study of yoga and how it can benefit many medical conditions, including back pain.

His latest research, published in February 2021, confirmed that yoga, with a focus on isometric postures that strengthen certain muscle groups, can actually reverse scoliosis in adolescents.

Dr. Fishman explains that he and his team took X-rays of 56 14- to 18-year-olds and taught them yoga movements that strengthened muscles on the convex side—the outside—of their curves.

“Usually, it was just one or two poses,” he says. “They promised to do the yoga at least once a day and held them for as long as they safely could.”

After five to six months, X-rays were taken again. The average improvement was 4% per month, making the average improvement over six months around 25%. Most of the participants continued in the study for 12 months, and their average improvement was 48%, which suggests that yoga could be a viable treatment in place of scoliosis surgery.

Why Yoga and Scoliosis Go Hand-in-Hand

The good news is that yoga for scoliosis isn’t just beneficial to adolescents—Dr. Fishman says that he and his team just finished a larger study of adults with scoliosis and “the results are just as good.”

He details why yoga seems to be such a help to a curved spine, saying, “The convex side is the weak side and must become equal in strength to the concave side’s muscles. What makes yoga work is that when the pose is held for as long as possible, it develops endurance and stamina in muscles that work to correct the curve.”

The other positive aspect is, as Dr. Fishman notes, yoga is a “simple, almost free way to reverse scoliosis in a few minutes a day.”

“Apart from a belt and a block, it takes no equipment, and adolescents can do it themselves,” he says.

How to Get Started with Yoga for Scoliosis

If you or an adolescent in your life has scoliosis and wants to try yoga as an effective treatment method, you’ll be glad to know that it’s perfectly fine to try online classes as opposed to ones in-person. In fact, Dr. Fishman says that people can do “a short Zoom class” with him and then continue on their own (for more information, visit his Manhattan Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation website).

Dr. Fishman makes the point that it only requires minutes a day of practicing yoga, with a focus on “easily mastered” moves that “work well for many individuals,” aspects that naturally lend themselves to complying with a daily practice.

If an adolescent is practicing yoga, Dr. Fishman says, “Parents or siblings can monitor the poses once in a while to be sure the yoga is being done correctly.”

Best Yoga Poses for Scoliosis

Dr. Fishman emphasizes that it’s best to talk with an expert to discover what works and what doesn’t work for your scoliosis. For example, Dr. Fishman says that he successfully prescribes scoliosis yoga poses and follows up with X-rays.

He says that there are different poses that work best for different people’s individual curved spines, but “side plank is one that works well for lumbar curves.” Dr. Fishman adds that when doing the side plank, it’s key to do it with the convex side of your spine down.

To do a side plank:

  • Lie on your side with your knees bent, propping yourself up on your elbow
  • Raise your hips off the floor, resting on your knees stacked one on top of the other, or as you progress, your stacked feet, and hold for at least six seconds
  • Rest for 10 seconds, then raise your hips again
  • Repeat this process a few times

Woman doing side plank yoga pose for scoliosisThe side plank is most beneficial for scoliosis when you do it with the convex side of the curve--the outside--facing down.

Dr. Fishman says that the half-moon pose “is good for thoracic curves” and it should also be done with the convex side of the ribs down.

To perform the half-moon pose:

  • Stand at the top of your mat, with a block on the floor if you need it
  • Spread your legs three feet apart and raise your arms to shoulder level
  • Turning your foot toward the block and your other foot in about 30 degree, bend your knee and place your hand on the block or floor
  • Raise your other arm, and while keeping your hand on the block or floor, straighten your knee and raise your other leg so it’s parallel with the ground
  • Keep your arm stretched toward the ceiling and turn your head so you’re looking at the ceiling
  • Try your best to keep your balance and rely on the block for support if needed
  • Hold the pose as long as you are able

Woman practicing half moon yoga pose for scolioisDon't be afraid to rely on your block if you need it.

Whether you’re doing yoga for its myriad health benefits or focusing just on scoliosis, Dr. Fishman says yoga has what he calls a “dose-response effect,” saying, “The more you do the poses and the longer you hold them, the greater the progress you’ll make.”

Updated on: 04/23/21
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Loren M. Fishman, MD
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