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Scoliosis—a condition that causes the spine to form an unnatural curve and/or twist—is most common in childhood, tending to develop just before puberty. But the condition also can be a problem for adults, who can suffer from troublesome scoliosis pain and stiffness in the lower back.
Adults with scoliosis may have had the condition since they were young, or may develop it due to another condition that affects the spine, such as osteoarthritis or the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis. While some people don’t suffer any discomfort from their scoliosis, others experience severe scoliosis pain.
Scoliosis pain isn’t in the spine itself—it’s related to the effect scoliosis has on the muscles of the back. Scoliosis causes the spine to form an “S” or “C” curve; the muscles on the outside of the curve tend to be placed under greater stress than the muscles on the inside of the curve.
Scoliosis in adults can be worsened by other spinal conditions, such as spinal stenosis. “The range of symptoms can be from asymptomatic—or no symptoms—to completely debilitating, depending on the patient, magnitude of the deformity, and where the bend or special shape occurs,” says Paul Huddleston, MD, an orthpaedic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic.
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How to Ease Scoliosis Pain
Treating scoliosis pain in older adults focuses on maximizing physical function. If you have an underlying condition such as osteoporosis, you may be given medications to slow the natural process of bone loss that occurs as you age.
Pain-relieving drugs can help ease scoliosis, and physical therapy also can help by strengthening the muscles of your “core,” which help to support your lower back. For examples of core exercises, visit our posts “Core Exercises for Elderly: Staying in Charge” and “Core Exercises for Seniors.”
Another type of exercise that focuses on core muscles is yoga. A 2014 study suggested that a specific yoga pose might actually improve scoliosis and scoliosis pain in adolescents and adults.
For the study, 25 participants were given a physical examination and X-ray to assess the extent of their scoliosis. They were then shown how to perform a yoga exercise called the side plank (vasisthasana), and instructed to do the exercise on the side of their spinal curvature.
“Since scoliosis is an asymmetrical condition, I have treated it asymmetrically, asking patients to do the pose on the weaker side only,” said study leader Loren Fishman, MD, assistant clinical professor of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, and medical director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. “That strengthens the specific spinal muscles on the convex side that are needed to help with curve reduction.”
Fishman also noted that “while the National Scoliosis Foundation recommends 25 yoga poses, it does not cite clinical results, and does not suggest that the poses be done asymmetrically.”
The study participants performed the side plank pose for an average of one and a half minutes per day, six days a week, for two months. At the end of the study period, 19 participants who did the yoga pose more than three times a week had a 40 percent reduction in their scoliosis curve.
The Surgery Option
If physical therapy doesn’t help your scoliosis pain, surgery to straighten your spine may be an option.
“We think of surgery really as an end-stage treatment,” says the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Paul Huddleston. “We are trying to balance the patient’s suffering versus intervening too soon. We don’t want to put a very large, potentially painful procedure in front of some of these more basic foundation treatments, but we don’t want people to suffer, either.”