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Scoliosis Exercise -

How Balancing My Muscles
Helped My
Spinal Curvature


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My Story

Many people write to me to know what exercises or stretches they should do to improve their scoliosis. I'm not sure that there is a single, good answer to this question. "Scoliosis" is a very broad term meaning curvature of the spine. I think the exercises someone with scoliosis needs to do have to be based on their individual areas of weakness and tightness in their muscles. In my case my spine was curved because tight muscles and cramps in one shoulder and one calf were pulling bones and other muscles out of proper alignment.

In order to change my body, I had to use "reverse engineering." I had to figure out where my muscles were tight and where they were stretched out, and then try to strengthen the weak muscles and stretch out the tight muscles. Knowing what I know now, it all seems so obvious, but when you've lived with scoliosis and unbalanced muscles your whole life, they just seem normal. Plus, all of the doctors I saw just told me that scoliosis was incurable and that exercise wouldn't help, so for a lot of years I was discouraged from even trying to change the way I looked and felt.

Muscle Tension is The Key

I realize now that the a big perpetual cramp in my right calf was causing, over time, my right shoulder to be pulled down and stretched out. My higher, left shoulder was also getting pulled down and to the right. Over time, it was getting strengthened and overdeveloped from the constant pull from the cramp in my right leg. My thorax was twisted because the knot in my leg was in the back of my left leg, so it was pulling my left shoulder down and back.

drawing of muscle tension in spinal curvature

Scoliosis Tension Points

My spine basically had to bend because my muscles were pulling it out of alignment.

Here's a detailed description of what was wrong with my alignment and what symptoms it caused:

  • At point A, the knotted muscles were putting pressure on my nerves and blood vessels. This is why I would get vertigo, nose bleeds (epistaxis) just on my left side, thoracic outlet syndrome. I would also get floaters in my left eye from the pressure.

    The pressure on my nerves from tight mucles would cause shooting pains in my left arm, and sometimes my left arm would tingle or go completely numb.
    Technically, I was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, or TOS. TOS affects the nerves in the brachial plexus (nerves that pass into the arms from the neck) and various nerves and blood vessels between the base of the neck and axilla (armpit). My right shoulder joint would also make weird noises and pop out of place from tiem to time from the constant pressure of my tight muscles.

  • At point B, my shoulder muscles were weak and stretched out. The muscles were so tight I developed a frozen shoulder. I had a lot of pain in my neck on this side, too, plus TMJ and frequent ear infections. My right jaw would get so sore sometime I had to live off baby food. My right shoulder was being pulled down from a tight muscle in my calf, which caused that shoulder to droop and my right arm to hang lower than the other. It also caused my shoulder to be pulled backwards, which caused my torso to twist. My left shoulder came forward and my right shoulder went back.

  • At point C, my muscles were being pulled downward from my leg knot and to the left from my left shoulder knot at point A. They got very tense and tight from the constant pressure, and as I aged I could no longer lift this arm over my head without pain. (My mother and grandmother had exactly the same problem, and my son started to develop it, too. My son and I are okay now from physical therapy, trigger point therapy and especially yoga. My grandmother died having a "bum arm" and never knowing why. She used to try to clean her floor with a rag on her foot because she couldn't bend over or use her right arm.) I also had a constant pain in my groin area, probably from some compressed nerves there. One of my doctors thought I had uterine fibroids because my groin area felt so hard. It wasn't fibroids. The tests they did for fibroids showed up nothing. The tightness was all from muscular tension.

  • At point D, I had a big knot in my leg. I always had a bunch of broken blood vessels there, and now I know why. It all seems so obvious now. This leg had sciatica from my tight muscles pressing on my sciatic nerve.

  • At point E, my foot turned out oddly and my ankle would get sprained frequently. I realize now my foot had to turn out to support and balance out my twisted thorax. If it hadn't, I would have fallen over on that side. A physical therapist told me my turned out foot was a birth defect. It wasn't at all. With my body better aligned, it doesn't turn out oddly at all anymore.

  • On my back I had winged scapula (shoulder blades that stick out funny).

One time when I went to a hand and arm clinic for physical therapy, they helped raise my right shoulder up with stretching exercises, but they didn't work on my legs at all because they were only a hand and arm clinic. Because they didn't eliminate the knot in my leg, it just made the knot in my leg worse from my shoulder being pulled upwards. So as I went through therapy, my hand and arm got better as my shoulder got higher and my calf got tighter. They had merely shifted the tension point from my upper body to my lower body, but not done anything to actually eliminate the overall tension in my body. So as my arm got more relaxed and my shoulder was raised higher and put back into a "normal" position, my ankle kept spraining. My orthopedist didn't know why my ankle would sprain so frequently. It turned out it was a result of the physical therapy that he had prescribed for me. It took me quite awhile to figure this all out.

In hindsight, they really should have looked at the alignment of my whole body. I would never go to a clinic where they just worked on one part of my body again. As you can see from my "before" drawing above, working on just one part of my body alone would never really have solved anything. I had to finally find someone who could look at the "big picture" to see what was really wrong with me.

What I had to do to balance my muscles was to do trigger point therapy (see The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook for specifics on trigger points) and stretches in the knot in my leg and higher shoulder to get those muscles to relax, and strengthen the muscles in my weak shoulder. I had to do completely different exercises on each side of my body to get it to balance out. I know some yoga teachers say to do the same exercises on each side for scoliosis, but I disagree with that advice for anyone with the type of scoliosis I had. I found it has been very important to me to stretch each part of my body every day, but I hold the stretches in the tight areas for a longer time.

To think about it logically, I compare my spine to a tent pole and my muscles to tethers around the tent pole helping it to stay upright. If I had a tethered tent pole that was leaning to one side and I wanted to straighten it, I would pull tighter on some of the tethers and loosen up on others. If I applied equal force to all of the tethers on a pole that was unbalanced to start out, it would remain unbalanced. It was the same with my body. I had to loosen up the tight muscles (tethers) and tighten up the weak muscles (tethers) supporting my spine (my center pole).

woman in yoga pose

Yoga Really Works!

Yoga helped me to "reverse engineer" my body. I do this pose on both sides but I hold the pose longer when I stretch toward my left foot. This helps to lengthen the paraspinal muscles on the concave (right) side of my curve.

In order to straighten out my body, I had to start thinking about it like an engineer would think about straightening a tilting column. The prevailing medical view about scoliosis seems to be that it is caused by some mysterious, as of yet undiscovered gene. Besides being unproven, I don't think this view takes into account gravity and the laws of physics. People's spinal columns are not exempt from the same laws of physics as other columns.

In thinking about my scoliosis from an engineering point of view, the first thing I did was to make make sure my spine (the column) itself was strong and stable. I think the reason there is such a strong link between osteopenia/osteoporosis and scoliosis is simply that weakened columns have more of a problem staying upright. A spine with lowered bone densities is probably less likely to be able to support its weight and stay upright, and hence will bend, buckle and curve as it tries to bear weight. This is exactly why people with rickets get scoliosis.

Another area to think about is that any small pull or unbalanced force placed on a column over a period of time is going to pull the column off center. Click here for an article on the Leaning Tower of Pisa to start to think logically about how columns can be moved slowly, either off or on center, over time through small, but steady, pulls. The engineers on the Tower are using braces to pull the Tower of Pisa back slowly into position, inch by inch. I think the same thing happens with muscles. My spine got out of balance over time through the constant pull of tight muscles in my calf and shoulder, and now I'm trying to move it back into place by eliminating these muscular pulls and by stretching in the opposite directions

The Leaning Tower of Pisa example is also a good illustration of how it pays to just keep trying different techniques to solve an engineering problem, discarding what fails and sticking with the possible solutions that end up working. Like the engineers on the Leaning Tower of Pisa, I'm always trying different techniques to correct what's left of my scoliosis--acupressure, acupuncture, physical therapy, yoga, different yoga positions, chiropractic, etc. Some techniques and exercises have made me worse and some made me better. But now, years down the line, I know what works and what to avoid, and as a result, my scoliosis is almost gone. 

Read => Part 2




Related Sections -

Scoliosis Alternative Treatments (Exercise, Diet & Yoga)

Books and Tips with Scoliosis Exercises

Yoga for Scoliosis - Frequently Asked Questions

Alternative Therapies for Scoliosis

Scoliosis Cause: Clues From Associated Conditions

Does Physical Therapy for Scoliosis Help?



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