Adult-Onset Scoliosis: 3 Ways Yoga Can Help

Do you remember those school physicals when you had to bend over so the nurse could look at your spine? Screening for scoliosis in childhood is still a common practice, but scoliosis is not just a problem for kids.

In my work as a yoga therapist, I’ve encountered many individuals who develop scoliosis in their 50s and 60s. Many of them come to yoga for relief from the back pain, but not everyone experiences pain. In fact, people can live with scoliosis for many years without even knowing they have it!

Yoga can be a valuable component of the management and treatment of scoliosis. Not only can it help foster strength and flexibility for better spinal alignment, but it also can help to minimize respiratory issues and lessen pain.

 

What is Adult-Onset Scoliosis? 

Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine. There is a natural, forward-and-backward curve to the spine, however, with scoliosis the spine develops a side-to-side curve and rotates. While scoliosis most frequently occurs in children and teenagers, it is not uncommon for adults to develop it. Statistics show that about 36% of adults over age 60 develop a spinal curvature. 

Scoliosis in adults falls into two kinds: 

1) Idiopathic scoliosis is the most common form of scoliosis. It begins in adolescence and because there is no associated pain, often goes undiagnosed. It isn’t until the skeleton reaches maturity in adulthood that compression of the spine and the surrounding muscles and nerves make the condition painful leading to diagnosis.

2) Degenerative scoliosis, also called adult-onset scoliosis, degenerative scoliosis is caused by the breakdown of the intervertebral discs of the spine. These are the gel-like structures positioned between each vertebra which provide cushioning to the spinal column. The discs also allow the spine to move and bend smoothly. Not only do the discs help facilitate spinal disc movement, they also act as shock absorbers and provide structure to the spine.

 

As we age, changes to the discs and joints in the spine (frequently due to osteoarthritis or osteoporosis) causes the discs to degenerate. When this happens they lose height which causes the ligaments supporting the spine to become lax. This in turn causes the vertebrae to twist and shift into an unnatural or scoliotic curve.

 

What are the Signs of Scoliosis?

Degenerative scoliosis can cause pain ranging anywhere from nothing at all to a dull back ache to excruciating sensations that shoot down the leg, commonly referred to as sciatica. This can make walking difficult or even impossible. For most adults, the most common signs of scoliosis include:

Depending on the location of the curvature, leg pain, numbness, and/or weakness may develop if there is pressure on the nerves in the lower or lumbar spine. In some cases, people also complain of a loss in stature (height), shortness of breath or fatigue, and premature feelings of fullness in the stomach when in fact, the stomach is empty.

  • Uneven shoulders
  • One shoulder blade that appears more prominent than the other
  • Uneven alignment of the pelvis and hips
  • One side of the rib cage jutting forward
  • A prominence on one side of the back when bending forward
  • Leg length discrepancy

Depending on the location of the curvature, leg pain, numbness, and/or weakness may develop if there is pressure on the nerves in the lower or lumbar spine. In some cases, people also complain of a loss in stature (height), shortness of breath or fatigue, and premature feelings of fullness in the stomach when in fact, the stomach is empty.

 

3 Ways Yoga Can Help Scoliosis

It’s important to say this upfront: Yoga cannot heal or cure scoliosis. You can’t “correct” your scoliosis through yoga, but it can help to alleviate the pain and discomfort.

Before you begin a yoga practice, it’s important to know how your spine curves. Using x-ray images, your doctor can tell you whether it is an S curve or a C curve, where the curvature happens along your vertebrae, and how your ribs are shaped. Understanding your particular imbalances will help you make adjustments to your yoga practice. It is also important to seek out a yoga therapist who has experience working with this condition.

Yoga can benefit your scoliosis in three ways:

 

1- Strengthen Spinal Muscles and Increase Flexibility 

For people with scoliosis, the muscles on one side of their spine are tight while the opposing ones are weak. Yoga can help to strengthen the weak muscles while simultaneously stretching and releasing the contracted ones. Stretching the muscles around the spine also leads to better mobility of the thoracic spine, the segment that runs from the base of your neck to your abdomen.

Bringing greater balance to the spinal muscles also leads to better posture, something especially helpful for people with scoliosis. Asymmetrical poses such as Gate Pose (Parighasana) and Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasana) can be used to strengthen each side of the back independently.

 

2) Decompress and Lengthen the Spine 

No matter what kind of curve you have, the most important part of any yoga practice for scoliosis is axial extension. Poses that emphasize axial extension bring the spine into maximum vertical alignment, integrating all the spinal curves without strain.

For example, Dynamic Mountain (Tadasana) and Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Savasana) both lengthen the extensor muscles (which attach to the spine and keep you erect) and create space between the vertebrae. This also helps create greater evenness in the ribs which often are twisted.

 

3) Improve Breath Control 

One of the greatest benefits of yoga for people with scoliosis is mindful breathing. Steady, intentional breathing brings oxygen to the muscles, which is especially important for releasing muscles that are chronically contracted. Deep, slow, diaphragmatic breathing practices like Three-Part Breath (Deergha Swasam), not only increase lung capacity, but can help to reduce stress as well as pain levels.

Another benefit to mindful breathing is improved vital lung capacity, which is frequently compromised because one side of the spine is curved inward. This leaves less space for the lung on that side to expand and take in air, reducing overall lung capacity. This reduction can manifest as feeling short of breath and more easily fatigued. By mindfully directing the breath into the concave ribs, you can actually stretch the muscles between the ribs (known as the intercostal muscles) and create more lung capacity, and more openness and evenness on both sides of the chest.

 

At Wisdom Tree Yoga, I truly believe it is possible to age with grace and vibrancy. When faced with physical challenges like adult-onset scoliosis, yoga provides tools to help navigate those challenges with wisdom, grace, and resilience.

I invite you to sign up for my 6-part series on coping with back pain and caring for your spine coming in March 2024. Click HERE for details and to register.

Be well!  

Wisdom Tree Yoga’s goal is to share the transformative benefits of yoga with real people living with real life challenges. We welcome students of all levels, offering a safe, supportive environment that is inclusive, accessible, compassionate, and joyful.



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