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Treating Scoliosis and Abnormal Curvature of the Spine

Learn the causes of Scoliosis and how to treat it effectively.

by Brad Walker | First Published March 20, 2009 | Updated September 12, 2017

The spine, also referred to as the vertebral column or backbone, is the bony structure that protects the spinal cord, forms a base for other bones to connect to, and forms the central structure of the skeletal system. The spinal cord runs through the spinal canal formed by the vertebrae of the spine.

The vertebrae are subjected to heavy loads during normal activity, and have discs to cushion them. These intervertebral discs also reduce the friction between the bones, allowing for movement.

If you suffer from scoliosis or are seeking to prevent its occurrence it is important to follow the information in this article. In addition, adding a few simple stretches to your fitness program will also help. To get started on a safe and effective stretching routine that’s just right for you, check out the Ultimate Guide to Stretching & Flexibility.

The spine has a normal elongated “S” curve when viewed from the side. The thoracic spine bows outward toward the back and then curves back in at the lumbar region. When viewed from the back the spine should form a straight line.

When the normal curvature is interrupted the spinal cord is stretched and can lead to further complications. Muscle imbalances, chronic joint pain and injuries, and other misalignment issues may arise, as well.

Treating Scoliosis and Abnormal Curvature of the Spine

What is Scoliosis?

The vertebrae of the spine are designed to fit together to form a straight line when viewed from the front or back. Any deviation from this line places extra stress on some of the bony processes, intervertebral discs, and muscles. A right or left curvature of the spine is called scoliosis. It may also be accompanied by a rotational curving of the spine. This condition should not be confused with lordosis (an excessive inward, concave, curvature of the lumbar or cervical spines) or kyphosis (abnormal outward, or convex, curvature of the spine, generally in the thoracic region).

Anatomy Involved

Scoliosis is a deformity of the spine. It involves the vertebrae, the intervertebral discs, the ligaments and tendons that connect to the spine, and the musculature that surrounds, and supports, the spine. It can also affect the skeletal structures that are connected to the spine, such as the hips, shoulders, scapula, and ribs. When the spinal column is curved it can change the pull of the muscles on the various structures and cause misalignment in the hips and shoulders, and cause a shrinking of the intercostal spaces of the ribs, reducing total chest cavity volume.

What Causes Scoliosis?

Scoliosis has many causes. It can be a condition in itself or may be the symptom of another condition. Scoliosis is more prevalent in females than in males. Two percent of the women and 0.5% of the men in general population have scoliosis. It can be a congenital birth defect, it can be a genetic condition passed on from the parents, it may be a result of a neuromuscular issue, or it could be the result of a limb length difference. Scoliosis may also be caused by cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, spinal muscular atrophy, or tumors. The most common cases of scoliosis, however, are idiopathic. They have no known cause and occur in otherwise healthy individuals.

It is important to note that scoliosis is not caused by poor posture, exercise, diet, or the use of back packs.

Signs and Symptoms?

Common signs of scoliosis include a difference in shoulder height on one side, a more prominent shoulder blade on one side (it may appear to stick out more), the head may not be centered directly above the pelvis, the hips may appear off center and one side may be raised, the appearance of a body lean to one side, and rib cage abnormalities (there may be a hump in the rib cage, or on side may appear higher than the other.) Asymmetric size and/or location of the breasts, uneven spacing of the arms away from the body, and an uneven waist are also common signs.

Pain is not a common symptom in children with scoliosis, and if pain is noted there may be an underlying issue such as a tumor or injury. Adults may or may not have back pain with scoliosis. Fatigue, especially during activities involving movement of the hips and spine, may be experienced. In severe cases of scoliosis, difficulty breathing may also be a symptom.

Treating Scoliosis

Treatment for scoliosis falls into three basic categories: observation, bracing, and surgery. Minor curvatures, or those that develop later may fall under the observation category. A doctor may just keep an eye on the development to make sure the curvature does not get worse. Some physical therapy to stretch and strengthen the muscles may help keep misalignment issues from arising later. Adults may be given pain relievers and a specific exercise program to follow.

More severe curvatures, and especially those that continue to progress, may require bracing. Bracing is usually only used when the body is still growing, to prevent further curving of the spine. This treatment is applied until the growth of the spine has stopped. Children with a 25-40% curvature may benefit from a brace. Curvature beyond that, or in a mature spine, will not benefit from the brace.

The cases involving over 50% curvature or those cases in adults that continue to progress may require surgical intervention. This is commonly achieved through implants to support the spine or by fusing the vertebrae on the outside of the curve to prevent further curving. This is controversial in younger children because the fused bone will not grow, while the rest of the spinal column continues to grow.

Preventing Scoliosis

Scoliosis, due to the nature of the condition cannot truly be prevented, however once it is found preventative steps can be taken to reduce the severity and prevent further curving of the spine.

  • Avoiding activities that cause pain and pressure on the spine, especially around the area of the curvature will reduce the stress on the delicate spinal structure.
  • If a brace is prescribed for the curvature, wearing it as directed will help prevent the spine from curving further.
  • Preparing the muscles and joints in and around the back for any physical activity before starting will help reduce the stress on the spine and intervertebral discs.
  • Lifting with proper form and with controlled motions will reduce all back injuries and the stress placed on the spine.
  • A strengthening program to condition and strengthen the muscles of the back, hips, shoulder girdle, and abdominals will help support the spine and balance the strength of the muscles.
  • Stretching the muscles of the spinal column and keeping them flexible can reduce pain in adult sufferers and reduce the stress on the still growing body of children.

The Stretching Handbook, DVD & CD-ROMWhile the recommendations on this page are a good starting point, you'll get a lot more benefit when you include a wider variety of stretches.

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Brad Walker - AKA The Stretch CoachAbout the Author: Brad is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 100's of testimonials. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.

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