For adolescent girls and adults diagnosed with scoliosis severe enough to need treatment -- especially young girls, whose scoliosis of unknown origin (IAS) is by far the most common form of scoliosis -- treatment options are heartbreaking. Actually, there are 38,000 scoliosis surgeries annually in the USA costing approximately $7.1 billion
When their bodies are changing and their peer group is becoming all-important, these young girls are put in disagreeable braces or subjected to surgery. Untreated
scoliosis can progress at 7 percent per year, and result in disability and life-threatening health risks.
Bracing, the most conservative treatment, consists of confining body orthotics worn up to 23 hours a day. In addition, one of the most popular bracing methods calls for patients to exercise in two-hour sessions three times per week for three to four months. Patients are then advised to continue exercises for half an hour a day as long as they live.The bracing is unwieldy and lengthy exercising is socially awkward, emotionally painful and physically difficult. European studies find a profound drop in self-esteem and a dramatic rise in depressive symptoms accompany bracing.
Medical yoga has been so effective for so many different ailments that I decided to try it for scoliosis. Experience had already shown that patients can't or don't want to spend hours or a lot of money. I looked for a relatively simple pose that could be applied to scoliosis, done in a brief time, at home after minimal instruction.
Since scoliosis is an asymmetrical condition, I thought about poses that could be done asymmetrically, on one side only. It made sense that strengthening the muscles on the weak (bulging) side of the curve would make those muscles powerful enough to pull the spine into a straighter position. The Side Plank (Vasisthasana) could make the relevant spinal muscles stronger for the primary curves I focused on initially when I began a clinical trial.
My first patient, the one who inspired the clinical trial, was an older woman brought to me by her yoga-teaching daughter. Her curve was 108 degrees, and was affecting her breathing and cardiac function to the extent that she could not have surgery. I told her we could try using yoga which might slow down or maybe even halt the progression of the curve. It never occurred to me then that we could reverse the curve.
Immediate Encouraging Results
After the first X-ray, she returned to my office, where she learned Vasisthasana rather quickly, though she had not done much yoga before. At that time she committed to doing the pose up to six times week for about a minute or a minute and a half a day. Helped and encouraged by her yoga teacher daughter, she religiously did the pose every single day. After about a year and a half I said, "maybe I'm kidding myself, but you actually seem straighter." The repeat X-ray was 64 degrees -- a reduction of almost 60 percent!
This woman is emblematic of the results of my clinical study, which showed that Vasisthasana, a basic yoga pose, done for an average of only 1.5 minutes a day, six days a week for an average of 6.8 months, reduced idiopathic scoliosis curves for adolescent and adult patients an average of 32 percent. The 25-participant trial was evaluator-blinded, X-ray based and used the standard Cobb method for measuring results. Among 19 compliant patients who did the yoga more than three times a week, the improvement was 40 percent. In the group of compliant patients, adolescents improved 49.6 percent -- almost half; adults improved 38.4 percent. All patients did the side plank (Vasisthasana) yoga pose, and all patients did it on one side only -- the convex side of the lumbar curve.
Other research besides this small medical yoga trial has been done, of course. One method found improvements with 15 hours a week of exercises, but it measured the spinal twist that results from advancing scoliosis, not the curve. I believe the curve is what needs to be treated, that it comes first and causes the twist. Other popular methods do not use the Cobb scale (the standard) for measuring sclerotic curves, or they recommend yoga or other exercises but have no scientific evidence that they work.
More Research Is Needed
Scoliosis is not necessarily simple. Many patients also have "S" shaped curves, and curves appear in different spinal locations. I am beginning to work with those other curves in addition to the primary curve that Vasisthasana reduces. The Half-Moon Pose, Ardha Chandrasana, appears to help with some curves higher up in the rib-bearing vertebrae.
There are still many unanswered questions about Vasisthasana and other specific yoga poses for scoliosis. Does the curve keep reducing at the same rate? Are there even better poses? Can yoga prevent scoliosis? More research is needed. But yoga -- free, with "side-effects" such as better posture, enhanced self-esteem and elevated consciousness, can be done without cost, at home, producing results in a brief time -- certainly provides hope