Sports and scoliosis often go hand in hand. As many as 24 percent of young athletes have it.
While many parents express concern over allowing kids with scoliosis to participate in athletics, exercise is pivotal to any successful treatment plan.
- It strengthens the core muscles that support the spine
- It keeps the body nimble and prevents stiffness
- It supports overall health and boosts self-esteem
Specific exercises can even stop scoliosis progression and help reduce curvature by retraining the brain to correct the spine’s posture.
“Most studies support physical activity for patients with scoliosis,” says the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine.
Best Sports to Play with Scoliosis
Sports are generally safe for kids with scoliosis — as long as they are careful about limiting activities that place undue stress on the spine.
Some exercises are particularly beneficial.
For example, “sports and exercises that require using both sides of the body are especially important to keep the whole body strong,” says the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. In general, low-impact activities that don’t jar the spine are safest, and burst training — short-term, high-intensity exercise — is usually recommended over endurance training.
For those with scoliosis, sports to play that help support the spine include:
“Swimming is a great exercise and has been recommended for years if you have scoliosis,” says Dr. Aatif Siddiqui, D.C. “It is highly recommended because it helps strengthen the spine in an almost weightless environment.” It also uses more of the body’s muscles — and in a more balanced and symmetrical fashion — than any other sport. But he cautions against competitive swimming for those with thoracic scoliosis. Swimming laps for hours every day can cause the thoracic spine to flatten, which could propel curve progression.
Cycling is another low-impact sport that gives a great cardiovascular workout without aggravating scoliosis curves. Limit off-road cycling, however, as high-impact jolting can compress the spine.
Soccer can be especially beneficial for young athletes with curvature in the mid back. Strengthening the core muscles helps preserve the natural curvature of the thoracic spine, which counteracts the flattening that occurs with thoracic scoliosis.
- Cross-Country Skiing
Gliding-type activities such as cross-country skiing are often recommended for scoliosis patients because they minimize shock to the vertebrae. Cross-country skiing also works both sides of the body, which is helpful for supporting a strong and balanced spine.
- Strength Training
Building strength is critical for anyone with spinal problems, as stronger muscles are better able to support the spine; however, it is important to do it properly. “You have to increase the weight very slowly to avoid added stress to your spine, which would cause the spine to get worse,” Siddiqui said. Avoid repeatedly squatting or lifting weights above the head, which can cause spinal compression.
Flexibility training is one of the most important things you can do for scoliosis. Regular stretching relieves tension and helps restore range of motion; if done strategically, it can help counteract the spine’s curvature. Just be aware of which stretches aren’t safe exercises for scoliosis. When practicing yoga, for example, use modified poses in place of those that hyper-extend or severely rotate the spine.
Sports to Avoid with Scoliosis
While playing sports doesn’t cause scoliosis, certain repetitive or high-risk activities can exacerbate the problem. For example, many sports are fine to play recreationally but aren’t recommended at a competitive level because of the hours of repetition involved in competitive training.
Most of the time, it is not necessary to quit a sport entirely; however, young athletes should limit their participation in activities that:
- Compress the spine. Spinal compression occurs whenever a child takes a step, jumps, or runs. Repeatedly engaging in high-impact activities places significant stress on the spine and can aggravate scoliosis over time. This includes traumatic sports such as football, as well as those that involve:
- Lifting weight over the head
- Hard landings (e.g. cheerleading, gymnastics)
- Long-distance running (more than 400 meters)
- Hyperextend the mid back. Of young athletes who have scoliosis, “the highest rates are observed among dancers, gymnasts, and swimmers,” the New York Times says. Repeatedly extending the thoracic spine — in a back bend, for example — causes the vertebrae to rotate further into the hollow of the scoliosis curve, which often propels rapid progression. Young athletes should limit back bends and use modified poses when engaging in:
- Unevenly work the spine. Some researchers have reported a higher risk of scoliosis progression in “young athletes who engage vigorously in sports that put an uneven load on the spine,” says the New York Times. These include sports that work one side of the body more than the other, such as:
- Figure skating
- Javelin throwing
While certain exercises should be limited or avoided, depending on the type of curve, scoliosis and sports participation can — and should — go together. Allowing kids with scoliosis to continue playing the sports they love, if in a limited capacity, can play a key role in successful treatment.