They call him Lightning Bolt.
At age 20, he bolted through New York to set a world record—running the 100-meter sprint in just 9.72 seconds. The next year he shattered his own record and won his first of nine Olympic gold medals. Now, a decade later, Usain Bolt is considered the fastest runner ever timed.
Having a S-shaped spine hasn’t stopped him from becoming the world’s swiftest sprinter. Although scoliosis made him more prone to injuries early in his career, he’s learned a lot about managing his condition since then.
“If I keep my core and back strong, the scoliosis doesn’t really bother me,” he says. “So I don’t have to worry about it as long as I work hard.”
He’s not the only Olympic medalist with scoliosis. Swimmer Natalie Coughlin won six medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics despite the 27-degree curve that sometimes causes her back muscles to lock down. The key, she says, is to keep her muscles healthy. The full-body exercise she gets while swimming helps her manage her scoliosis.
Athletes from many different sports are able to achieve incredible feats despite their spinal curves. If anything, the condition prompts athletes to pay even closer attention to their bodies as they work to maintain optimal health. For kids with scoliosis, sports can become gateway to understanding the needs of their musculoskeletal system and how to minimize the impact of scoliosis on their lives—as long as they stay within their doctor’s guidelines.
Why Sports and Scoliosis DO Mix
When you have scoliosis, exercise becomes more important than ever. Sitting or standing too long puts stress on the spine, so people with scoliosis should move often. Developing a strong core is also crucial for minimizing curve progression.
Good exercise habits are easiest to develop when kids are young. Sports—especially sports they’re passionate about—offer an effective way to do that. In fact, many doctors recommend athletics as part of scoliosis treatment. When Olympic athlete Maritza Correia McClendon was diagnosed with scoliosis at age 6, for example, her doctor recommended swimming as a therapeutic remedy.
“Swimming helped me work on my flexibility,” she says. “My back was constantly in motion and gaining strength. Outside the water, I worked on my posture. To this day, no one can tell I ever had scoliosis.”
Choosing the Right Sport for Your Child
For kids with scoliosis, sports are generally safe and definitely encouraged. But it’s also important to avoid putting undue stress on the spine.
There are some types of exercise all kids with scoliosis should avoid, while certain sports aren’t recommended for certain types of curves. As long as you know which are which, and you’ve got the green light from your doctor, signing your child up for sports is a good idea. Here are some general guidelines to follow:
Mind the thoracic curves. Although swimming is highly recommended for kids with scoliosis, athletes with thoracic curves are discouraged from swimming competitively. The intense repetition can exacerbate these types of curves, especially while your child is still growing. Soccer is a much better sport for thoracic curves, since it helps counteract scoliosis in the mid back by increasing kyphosis in the thoracic spine. It also helps build a strong core.
Build a strong core. Strength training, particularly in the core and back muscles, can be highly beneficial if it’s done carefully. In 1974, Lamar Grant broke the world record for lifting by hoisting 525 pounds despite his spinal curves. It’s important, however, to increase the weight very slowly to avoid too much stress on the spine.
Avoid spinal compression. The impact of running can cause spinal compression over time. Long-distance running is not recommended, but sprinting—the sport that made Usain Bolt a champion—is fine as long as you limit running to 400 meters. Hard landings, as in cheerleading, should also be avoided. Gymnastics may be fine on a casual basis but shouldn’t be done competitively.
Minimize traumatic injuries. High-contact sports like football place a tremendous amount of stress on the spine. They often result in traumatic body and spine injuries, which can trigger scoliosis progression.
Don’t hyperextend the back. Dancers and gymnasts have some of the highest rates of scoliosis. Athletes who repeatedly extend their thoracic spine—like when performing back bends—may experience rapid progression. Children with thoracic curves may want to avoid ballet.
Exercise the whole body. One-sided sports involving rotation, such as tennis, can cause scoliosis curves to worsen. Researchers have found that young athletes who “engage vigorously in sports that put an uneven load on the spine” have a higher risk of scoliosis progression.
There’s no need to avoid sports just because your child has scoliosis. Athletes with spinal curves have achieved tremendous athletic performance while deepening their understanding of their condition—and your child can too.