— Factually accurate and verified by Dr. Brian T. Dovorany. Last updated on October 1, 2018.
Activities that Can Help — or Hurt — if Your Child has Scoliosis
Also applicable to adults!
Idiopathic scoliosis is a misunderstood condition, as are the recommended do's and don'ts for people with scoliosis. You may think scoliosis stems from weak muscles or a problem with the spine, but it's actually a genetic condition triggered by environmental factors. The spinal curve is the most prominent symptom of miscommunication between the brain and muscles.
Activities and poor postures can't cause scoliosis, but they can accelerate its progression and cause increased pain.
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Learn what to avoid when you have scoliosis:
* If you prefer, jump ahead to our recommended scoliosis activities.
Don'ts: Activities that May Trigger Scoliosis Problems
Don't Wait to Get Treatment
You may have recently learned that your son or daughter has idiopathic scoliosis.
"The orthopedic doctor took X-rays and said there is a 20-degree curvature of the spine and nothing you can do at this time."
"You must wait six months to see if the scoliosis progresses."
If this doesn't feel right to your parental instincts, that's because waiting is foolish. Your child will benefit from early intervention and neuromuscular retraining even if the spinal curve is less than 10 degrees. Early intervention can reduce your child's spinal curve and stop scoliosis progression.
Don't Text Frequently
The forward, bent-head position of texting is terrible for people with scoliosis. It's not good for anyone, actually. It puts pressure on the spinal cord and compresses blood vessels to the spinal cord. Texting can damage the spinal cord and degenerate vertebra over time.
Texting often leads to chronic neck pain and may trigger scoliosis progression. Using talk to text functions, holding the phone at eye level and lying on a cervical roll are the safest ways to text.
Don't Swim Competitively
Competitive swimming and scoliosis are not a good fit. Swimming laps for hours daily causes the thoracic spine (spine from the base of the neck to the bottom of the ribs) to flatten, which can drive curve progression.
Some research data suggests the same holds true for competitive gymnastics and dancers participating in full-time ballet training.
Avoiding environmental drivers of scoliosis progression is important so the three dimensions of the spine stay as close to normal as possible.
Don't Play Football
This is an example of scoliosis and sports not being a good fit. Football is a high-contact sport even when it's played safely, so it can result in traumatic body and spine injuries. Traumatic sports like football put significant stress on your child's spine. Your son will not develop scoliosis because of football, but if he has the idiopathic scoliosis genetic predisposition, it can be triggered by football. Playing football is also dangerous if your son has metal rods in his back from scoliosis surgery.
Don't Sleep on Your Stomach
Sleeping with scoliosis can be a challenge. Sleeping on your stomach is the worst scoliosis sleeping position because it causes the thoracic spine to become flatter. Scoliosis is three dimensional; if one dimension gets worse, the others follow. Sleeping on your belly also requires you turn your head to the side, which twists your spine.
Don't Perform Torso Extensions
Repeatedly extending your thoracic spine in backbends, gymnastics, high jumps, dance maneuvers (especially in ballet) and certain yoga positions causes vertebrae to rotate further into the hollow of the scoliosis curve. The force often causes rapid scoliosis progression. Rather than force your child to quit these activities, have them limit back bends and use modified poses.
We have written an article on recommended yoga poses for scoliosis (and those to avoid).
Recommended Reading for Adult Scoliosis:
Adult Scoliosis Pain Management: Stretching, Yoga & Exercises
Yoga, Exercises & Stretches for Adult Scoliosis Pain Relief
Don't Sleep with the Lights On
Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland when your child sleeps. This hormone regulates puberty, especially in girls. Studies show that people with scoliosis have lower melatonin levels. Since melatonin is secreted primarily while you sleep, even the faintest light can slow or stop its release. A melatonin deficiency can cause early onset of puberty and associated growth spurts, as well as scoliosis progression. If your child enters puberty early, she has an increased risk of scoliosis progression because their brain and body aren't yet in sync.
Consequently, sleeping with a light, night light or television is harmful for children with scoliosis, or who are at risk of scoliosis due to it running in the family. A streetlight shining in the window also disrupts sleep and melatonin secretion. If you have adult scoliosis, you'll want to avoid light at night, as well.
Don't Run Long Distances on Hard Surfaces (e.g. Roads & Sidewalks)
Long-distance running with scoliosis can pose several problems. Spinal compression occurs every time you or your child takes a step, jumps or runs. Running over hills and uneven terrain also makes you bend or rotate your back. Prolonged running or jogging creates a great risk of scoliosis progression.
Horseback riding also compresses and jars the spine.
If you pound a bent nail with a hammer, it becomes more bent.
We suggest limiting running to 400 meters, which is one lap around the track, or less.
Don't Play on Trampolines
Jumping on trampolines is disastrous if your child has scoliosis. It can lead to a rapid advancement of spine curvature and postural collapse because jumping compresses the spine with every bounce. If your child has even mild scoliosis, it's best to avoid this backyard fun.
Don't Carry Heavy Things
Carrying heavy things, especially on one side, adds to the natural pull of gravity and compresses your spine further. An overloaded backpack is terrible for your child with scoliosis. Carrying the pack over just one shoulder is also unhealthy. The same advice goes for heavy weightlifting, especially if it compresses the lumbar spine (squats, deadlifts, lifting weight directly overhead, etc).
The total weight of a backpack should not exceed 10 percent of your child's body weight. Ask the school to provide a set of books for school and a second set for home.
Don't Wait Until Your Child's Curve Gets Worse.
Do Something Now.
Is treatment customized? What will it cost? Is my child a good candidate?
Do's: Tips for Children (and Adults) with Scoliosis
Do Start Early Intervention
Doctors may tell you to wait six months to a year if your child has a mild curve, but the greatest results may be achieved if your child gets muscle retraining and nutritional support before the curve reaches 30 degrees.
You have the right to get a second opinion and chose the best scoliosis treatment options.
Do Use a Quality Mattress
While there's no best bed for scoliosis, finding the best mattress for scoliosis can take some work. Typically, a firm or medium-firm mattress is the best scoliosis mattress you can choose, but you want to be certain to pick one that fits your child's body well – or yours, if you have scoliosis. Skip the cushiony mattress pad, but use extra pillows for comfort.
Do Change Positions Frequently
Sitting or standing in one place for too long stresses the spine. Stretch or take a walk as often as possible. Choose a chair with great support if you must sit for extended periods of time.
Do Get Help with Chores
Activities that require bending like cleaning bathrooms and floors can exacerbate scoliosis, so it's best if your child doesn't do them. If you have scoliosis, get help with these chores.
Stretching helps mitigate pain and discomfort. Good stretches include:
- Hang from a bar as long as possible, then repeat
- Bend in the direction of your curve
- Lie on rolled towels, one under your neck and the other under the lower back (spinal molding)
- Static chest stretch: stand and stretch arms out to your sides with the palms of your hands facing forward
Want more? See 10 stretches to help alleviate scoliosis pain.
Do Improve Core Strength
Do exercises to improve core strength. Core exercises are the best exercises for scoliosis because core muscles support the spine. Examples of core exercises are:
- Stand on a BOSU Balance Trainer or vestibular disc and balance; next, do three sets of 15 squats without weights
- Upright rows: stand with your spine very straight and do rows with dumbbells or a barbell
- Superman exercise: lie on your stomach with arms extended in front of you, palms down; lift both feet and arms
For additional exercises for people with scoliosis, see this page.
Do Play Soccer
If your child has mild scoliosis, soccer is a great exercise that does not worsen scoliosis or cause its progression. It's a good aerobic sport that strengthens the core muscles. All positions except goalie are fine. If your child has moderate to severe scoliosis, however, it's best to talk to your doctor before enrolling in soccer.
Do Continue Dancing (Limiting Back Bends)
Dancers with scoliosis need not fret! There's no reason to make your child stop dancing. Some dance movements like repeated back bends can aggravate scoliosis, but avoiding those movements makes more sense than eliminating dance altogether.
Scoliosis muscle retraining treatment is a long-term commitment. We've found that restricting activities your child loves is psychologically damaging. A frustrated child often abandons her scoliosis treatment program quickly.
Do Genetic & Clinical Testing
If your child has scoliosis, it's likely that she also has neurotransmitter, hormone, and nutritional imbalances. Recent studies show that correcting these imbalances helps stop scoliosis progression and greatly enhances the results of scoliosis-specific retraining. Balanced neurotransmitter levels are directly related to your child's spine reflex control and proper alignment.