Affecting the spines of children, teenagers and adults, an estimated six million people suffer from some form of scoliosis in the United States. While the human spine features several natural curvatures to allow for movement and flexibility, scoliosis is diagnosed when there is an abnormal curvature of the spine. Scoliosis is rarely fatal, but it can severely impact a person’s quality of life, both physically and psychologically. Although not one of the treatment options for correcting this condition, massage therapy can help relieve some of the resulting back pain, shallow breathing, sciatica, headaches and insomnia brought on by this aberrant spinal structure.
Curves are a normal part of the spine’s structure. Looking at the spine from a lateral view, a properly formed spine resembles a soft ‘S’ shape to maintain balance over the pelvis. From a posterior view, a normal spine will appear vertically straight from the neck to the sacrum.
Scoliosis is diagnosed when a posterior view of the spinal column reveals lateral bends. A scoliosis curve to the right side of center will form a compensating bend back to the left side, and vice versa. Scoliosis usually occurs in the thoracic or lumbar areas of the back. A normal spine has a vertical curve measuring less than 10 degrees. By measuring the curve’s angle using the vertebra at the apex of the curve as a starting point, a scoliotic spine measures curves of 10 degrees in mild cases and up to 90 degrees in the most severe cases.
Distribution and Causes
Most cases of scoliosis are considered to be of unknown origin, otherwise known as idiopathic. Statistics confirm that scoliosis is more prevalent in girls than in boys, and develops in adolescence in eighty percent of all cases. While it is also found in adults, most professionals assume that these scoliosis diagnoses were missed during childhood.
Sometimes, scoliosis can be a result of physical trauma or stress, such as a car accident. Rarely, congenital or infantile scoliosis occurs when severe spinal deformities are present at birth. While all of the following theories have not yet been validated, research has indicated that possible causes of scoliosis include:
- connective tissue disorders
- nervous system abnormalities
- hormonal imbalances
- genetic/hereditary factors
- consistent physical or emotional stress
Once diagnosed with scoliosis, there are several considerations a professional will evaluate before assessing treatment. These include determining:
- if the spine is still growing and changing
- how severe the curvature is
- the extent the patient’s lifestyle is impacted
- the curve’s location – according to the Scoliosis Research Society, thoracic curves are more likely to progress than lumbar curves
- the curve’s potential for progression – those with large curves prior to their adolescent growth spurts are more likely to experience curve progression.
After these variables are analyzed, the three treatment options to consider are:
- Observation – In mild cases of scoliosis, the only treatment warranted is periodic physician observation to ensure that the problem has not increased.
- Orthopedic Bracing – The most common treatment used for scoliosis, bracing is used for curves of 30-40 degrees. While a brace does not change the amount of curvature already present, a brace can stop the curve’s progression. Since most curve progressions occur during a child’s growth phase, bracing is most common from infancy through adolescence. Braces have replaced full torso non-removable casts and are usually worn 23 hours per day.
- Surgery – Surgery is used to stabilize the spine. In a procedure called Bone-Fusion, an orthopedic surgeon takes tiny pieces of bone from the patient’s pelvis and inserts them between the vertebrae in hopes of stimulating the bones to eventually grow together. During the surgery a metal rod, hooks and wire are inserted to keep the spine straight until the bones fuse. The hardware is rarely removed because that would require another extensive surgery.
Alternative Medicine for Scoliosis Relief
Since scoliosis is considered a deformity, the treatments discussed above are focused solely on reducing the progression of the problem. Due to the elongated musculature on one side and the shortened musculature on the opposite side, back pain, shallow breathing, sciatica, headaches and insomnia are frequent issues that a person with scoliosis must contend with. Consequently, many alternative treatments have been used to help reduce the problems caused by excessive curvature of the spine.
While Rolfing®, yoga, acupuncture, structural integration and exercise have a history of improving scoliosis symptoms, two massage therapy techniques also can help this condition:
- Cranial-Sacral Therapy – By gently addressing restricted tissue patterns surrounding and within the spinal column, adipose tissue and the dural tube, cranial-sacral therapy’s mobilization of fascia, gentle traction and enhancing mobility of the body can help bring some balance to the spine.
- Deep Tissue Massage – Deep tissue work, neuromuscular therapy and assisted stretching techniques to hypertonic muscles enhance local circulation and can bring relief from muscular pain and related adhesions. By elongating these tightened areas, the causal pull on the spine can relax. However, therapists should be aware that deep work on the overstretched fascia covering the ribs is not beneficial.
Since scoliosis reforms bone and becomes more difficult to liberate beyond 25 years of age, younger patients can have more dramatic results. While scoliotic patterns can change for adults too, older bodies change more slowly and differently than with youth.
Alternative treatments are not suggested to replace a traditional physician’s prescription. However, massage therapy can help reduce some of scoliosis’ related symptoms. Appropriate application of cranial-sacral therapy and deep tissue massage can provide a respite for continuously over-stretched fascia and muscles, thus lessening the stress on a wrenched spinal column.
Dalton, Erik, Symptomatic Scoliosis, Massage and Bodywork, April/May 2006.
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http://erikdalton.com, “Scoliosis – A Case Study”, Erik Dalton, PhD, Rolf Institute, 2008.
Wanveer, Tad, LMT, CST-D, Scoliosis and CranioSacral Therapy, Massage Today, February 2008.
www.associatedcontent.com, Rolfing: Treating Scoliosis With A Special Massage, Jennifer Dooley, Associated Content, Inc., January 2008.
www.spineuniverse.com, The Natural Curves of Your Spine, Stewart E. Eidelson, MD, SpineUniverse.com, 2008.
www.yogajournal.com, Back to Back, Elise Miller, Cruz Bay Publishing Inc., 2008.