What Is Scoliosis?
Scoliosis means a side-to-side (lateral) curvature of the spine usually combined with a rotation of the vertebras.
Frequently Asked Questions
1) How do I know if I have scoliosis?
Look at your posture from the back from top down:
• Head not centered to the body
• Uneven shoulders (either one is in front of the other or one’s higher than the other)
• Uneven shoulder blades: one is more prominent or higher
• Uneven waist angle: the gap between arm to trunk is wider on one side
• One hip is more prominent than the other or the hips are not leveled
• The spine line is not straight
Now perform the Forward bend test:
• Standing with the feet together, then bend forward as far as you can with your palms together, fingers pointing at between your toes.
• Look at the back, one side of the back (either upper or lower back region) will be higher than the other side
2) Is scoliosis caused by bad posture, or by not taking enough calcium?
• In most cases, scoliosis is caused by genetic factors which lead to uneven growth of the spine;
• It can also be caused by problems of other parts of the body, such as one leg being shorter than the other, or back muscle spasm;
• Birth defects and some diseases such as cerebral palsy, Marfan syndrome can also cause curvature of the spine;
• Degeneration of spine may sometimes cause scoliosis too;
• So, bad posture may lead to scoliosis due to muscle imbalance, which is not the same with scoliosis caused by bone deformities. In this case, the curve shall disappear if taking an X-ray in lying.
• Lack of calcium weakens the bones, but it does not cause scoliosis.
3) Does scoliosis cause back pain?
• The curvature of the spine itself does not cause pain, as the body adapts to the way the spine grows;
• However, because the muscles and soft tissues (ligaments, joint capsule etc.) grow unevenly on the sides of the spine, the imbalance of them may cause pain;
• Secondly, over time, in order to achieve certain movements in everyday activities, the body develops compensatory faulty posture and muscle imbalance that leads to pain.
4) Can I exercise if I have scoliosis?
• Yes, one can usually participate in any type of exercises; but due to the posture changes in scoliosis, some movements will be harder to achieve, and some will be restricted due to the lack of flexibility or muscle control;
• Exercises endurance sometimes can be affected by reduced lung capacities but this is rare in idiopathic scoliosis;
• Exercises do not have any adverse effects on the curve;
• If exercises that did not hurt before are now giving you pain, please tune down on the intensity of exercises for a few days. If the pain does not go away, you may need to consult a Dr. or a physiotherapist.
5) Can swimming help reduce the curve of scoliosis?
• Swimming is frequently recommended for patients with back problems because the spine is less loaded in the pool with the help of buoyancy;
• Swimming is good for general strengthening of back muscles; it is also good for breathing function. As scoliosis involves uneven development of the spine and muscles, swimming would not be able to specifically help reduce back pain caused by scoliosis, it does not help reduce the curvature too.
6) Do I have to have surgery if I have scoliosis?
• No. Surgery is usually only indicated when the curve is bigger than 50 degrees, or is severely affected one’s quality of life;
• Majority of scoliosis cases do not require surgery;
• Surgery needs to be considered if the curve is still worsening in spite of bracing and exercises, and is reaching or beyond 50 degrees;
• One must be aware that there are complications after the surgery such as stiffness, muscle weakness and possible broken rods;
• Surgery should be delayed as much as possible in growing children in order not to stunt the growth of the spine;
7) What else can help control scoliosis besides surgery?
• Besides surgery, the most commonly used treatment are bracing and physiotherapy;
• The purpose of using a brace is to control the progression of the curve, not to eliminate it;
• Physiotherapy works to strengthen the weak muscles, to improve the flexibility of the shortened & tight tissues, which helps slow down the development of muscle imbalance and joint stiffness;
• The stiffer the curve is, the more strongly physiotherapy is recommended addition to the bracing.
8) How many types of brace are available for scoliosis?
• In general, there are 2 main types of braces: hard brace and soft brace;
• Hard braces are made of thermoplastic. Like what its name suggests, it is hard and wearing hard brace limits spinal movements, therefore the individual’s sports participation would be greatly affected; it also creates much stiffness of the spine, weakness and tightness of the spine muscles;
• Common types of hard braces are Boston’s, Charleston’s, and Milwaukie’s etc.
• Soft brace on the other hand, allows movement of the spine when worn. Therefore, the spine is much more mobile during and after the treatment, there is also much less muscle imbalance and joint stiffness of the spine;
• Both hard and soft braces are effective before the bones of the spine reach maturity, which is between 13-15 years old for girls and 15-17 years old for boys; and both braces need to be worn regularly throughout the day (16 hours per day);
• Hard braces are usually much heavier and hotter to wear and results in a poorer compliance compared to soft braces;
• Soft braces are lighter and more comfortable to wear, it is more cosmetically acceptable as it can be well hidden under the clothes; it also allows better posture & muscle development;
• For people who participate in sports like dancing, gymnast, running or badminton, soft braces are of a much practical choice.
9) Can I move or exercise like before if I wear a brace?
• If you are wearing a hard brace, due to the weight and movement restriction, you will have to change the way you do sports or exercises; for example, if you used to run, you probably will have to run for a shorter distance or run at a slower speed;
• Exercises that require many trunk movement will likely to be difficult;
• You may tired out sooner too because of the pressure on the rib cage which affects chest expansion during breathing;
• You may need to exercise at a cooler time of the day as it will be hotter to exercise with the brace;
• You need to be careful with the skin condition at which the pressure is applied to control the curve; this too may affect how much and the kind of exercise you can participate in;
• So…most likely, if you need to exercise like before, you need to keep the brace off.
• If you are wearing soft brace, there will be minimum movement restriction, it is less hot and, less skin problems;
• All land exercises are encouraged as exercising with the brace on speeds up the curve correction;
• Soft brace allows much better muscle retaining and joint mobilization, which has a great impact on curve correction retention after the brace treatment is over.
10) What exercises are good for scoliosis?
• Exercises that are designed to work specifically on muscle imbalance, posture faults are more beneficial than general exercises like swimming, jogging, generic yoga & back stretching exercise; the reason is that general exercises usually fail to stress the “imbalance” in scoliosis, either for strength or flexibility;
• Swimming is good to unload the spine and improve the breathing function; it may also help to reduce back pain that results from excessive loading or tension;
• Correct breathing techniques are important as rib cage deformity is common in scoliosis;
• In order to specifically work on the muscles affected, the curve of the scoliosis needs to be assessed, the posture changes need to be analyzed in details;
• After the study of the curve type and the posture changes, specific movement can be taught and implemented to work on the faulty muscle and posture development;
• The exercised then can be progressed with resistance or more repetitions.
If you’re suffering from scoliosis, please click to find out more about the available physiotherapy treatments. Alternatively, get in touch with your local PhysioActive clinic to arrange an appointment.
Thanks for reading!
This post has been written by PhysioActive’s resident sports therapist, Tian Li Feng MMS, B.H. – Sports Therapist, Manual Therapist and Scoliosis Specialist.
Thoughts or questions?
Image credit: Blausen.com staff, via wikimedia.org