Yoga Shown to Reverse Scoliosis

Loren Fishman, MD, describes a noninvasive method of treating even small scoliosis curves with yoga.

Don’t look now, but your spine is curved. No need to panic, though; it’s supposed to be! Your spine bends inward toward the front of the body at the neck and lower back—a curve called lordosis—and bows outward in the mid-back, known as kyphosis. See, nothing to worry about…unless it curves to the side.

People reversing scoliosis with yogaYoga can help treat even small scoliosis curves that in the past would merely have been monitored.

Scoliosis is lateral curvature of the spine. Scoliosis is sometimes painful, and often affects appearance after 25 to 30 degrees. One shoulder is higher than the other, and clothes tend not to fit as well. It the curve worsens beyond 60 degrees, it can affect breathing and even cardiac function.

Unknown Causes

Tensegrity spineThe spine as a tensegrity structure

This condition frequently has a three-dimensional component, especially in more intense curves, as the ribs can migrate backwards on the side to which the curve bulges. The vast majority of cases are adolescent idiopathic scoliosis – scoliosis without known cause.

Because the cause has not been found, no effective treatment besides surgery has ever emerged. The standard wisdom has physicians and parents watching carefully for curves under 25 degrees, using bracing between 25 and 45 degrees, and considering surgery for more intense curvature.

Curves usually appear between the ages of 12 and 20 years old. Experts have debated why this happens to some young people and not others without clear resolution. Many believe the convex side, bulging out and backwards, with its large and hard exterior, is the strong side.

 

Strengthen the Convex

Considering the spine as a tensegrity structure puts scoliosis in new light. A tensegrity structure – popularized by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome - is held together by tension between its parts. There are no nails, screws or rivets. A Roman arch, a tent pole with its downward pulling ropes, and the human spine with its muscular tensions are all reasonable examples.

Geodesic dome similar to the spineThe spine, like this geodesic dome, is held together by tension.

Seen this way, the strong side of scoliosis is the concave side - just the opposite of what was generally thought before. Rational treatment then requires strengthening the weak (convex) side of one or more curves. From this analysis, and yoga-like poses that patients can learn once and do on their own at home or at school, my group has now successfully reduced the curves of hundreds of people.1-3

Yoga and Scoliosis

Using one pose, (and depending on individual curves, sometimes more than one pose), we take less than 5 minutes of our patients’ time daily. A yoga therapist and I get an average of 2.5% to 5.5% improvement per month. That means a curve of 30 degrees will reduce to approximately 18 degrees in 10 months.  We have succeeded with more than 80% of the patients who do the poses at least 4 times a week. We are now teaching them online and in the office. Analysis of those that learn online shows they do quite as well as people seen in person, they improve significantly too.2

One advantage of this method – apart from the fact that it works! – is that it’s non-invasive, and therefore can be used to help people with smaller curves, nipping the curvature in the bud. It’s true that most curves do not progress to the point of surgery, so no one would do surgery on smaller curves, but it is also true that every curve of 55 degrees was once a curve of 15 degrees. The innocuous yoga treatment is applicable to these curves too.

But not everyone succeeds. In late adolescence and the teen years, the spine is uniquely flexible. This can be good and accelerate the effects of yoga on straightening the spine. But sometimes the forces on the spine are greater than our method can challenge. In these cases, we believe the method reduces the worsening of the curve(s), and when growth tapers off, around 16 year of age, the method takes hold and works fast.

A now-16-year-old patient had lost some ground between ages 14 and 15, but her recent X-ray shows her curve has gone from 41 degrees to 20 degrees since January. Also, at times there is lateral sliding of the vertebrae—lateral listhesis—and for mechanical reasons, this can diminish the beneficial effect of yoga on the curve(s).

In each of these situations, we ask patients to redouble their efforts, and do the poses twice or more daily, which usually turns the tide, but sometimes not. At times, patients have need of surgery, and we can recommend the minimally invasive, minimally stiffening surgeries like those performed by Baron Lonner, MD (an editorial board member at Spine Universe) at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Updated on: 07/06/21
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Yoga for Scoliosis: Reap the Benefits
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Yoga for Scoliosis: Reap the Benefits

A 2021 study of adolescents says that yoga can actually reverse scoliosis. Hear from the study's author.
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