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In Honor of Scoliosis Awareness Month: The Impact of Scoliosis and How Physical Therapy Can Help

June 11, 2019

Physical therapists are here to help if you’ve been injured playing on the field, are recovering from surgery, or are living with a medical condition that has taken a serious toll on your mobility and quality of life. Among the vast list of conditions that physical therapy (PT) can improve are some of the rarer ones, such as scoliosis.

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, scoliosis affects around three percent of the U.S. population. Scoliosis refers to a curvature of the spine, either in the middle (c-curve) or lower and upper back (s-curve). This gradual deformation, which usually occurs in childhood or adolescence (but can onset in adulthood), causes one side of the body to weaken, and the relative muscles and tissues to tighten and shrink.

If scoliosis goes undiagnosed and untreated, it can result in major health complications down the road, including pulmonary and cardiovascular dysfunction. Samuel Oliver, Physical Therapist at Jefferson Cherry Hill Hospital, explains how scoliosis may impact individuals, as well as how PT may have an impact on them.

“Typically, scoliosis is either congenital (meaning you are born with it) or idiopathic (meaning onset is sudden and the cause is unknown),” explained Oliver. “However, there are times when it is secondary to another medical complication. We’ve seen children with cerebral palsy who also suffer from scoliosis, as well as stroke patients who developed scoliosis during paralysis.”

Oliver shared the most common symptoms of scoliosis: a higher shoulder on one side of the body, a rounding or rotation of the spine, and a misalignment of the hips. These symptoms restrict daily activities by making it difficult to walk, sit, lay down, or lift objects. Children who are affected often experience difficulty playing with their friends.

“Over time, a severe curvature of the spine can cause difficulty breathing, as your lungs may not be able to fully expand,” explained Oliver. “Scoliosis can also place additional stress on your heart and cause higher blood pressure. Depending on the age of development, it may have a huge effect on muscle and bone development, leading to muscular dystrophy.”

Scoliosis patients who undergo corrective surgery are often those who are referred to PT. However, for those who choose to opt-out of surgery – or in cases where spine curvature is not too far along – PT can also be extremely beneficial.

“More often than not, patients who haven’t undergone surgery are children. When working with them, our main goal is to make the weak side of the body strong enough for the child to support him or herself,” explained Oliver. “We implement exercises that gradually stretch the muscles and tissues.”

Exercises for scoliosis can be done either laying down, sitting with support, sitting without support, or standing, until the patient is ready to take on more dynamic activities.

“People who undergo surgery don’t always have an easier time recovering and improving,” continued Oliver. “There can be a lot of pain involved, especially because their body is in a position that they haven’t been used to in years. For these patients, we work a lot on balance, stepping strategies, and leg strengthening.”

Physical therapists working with scoliosis patients must communicate with the referring orthopedist/orthopedic surgeon, and after the normal length PT session (four weeks), determine if any other skills need improvement.

“We don’t treat scoliosis patients as often as we treat many other conditions; however, we do everything we can to (hopefully) make a very large impact on their lives, whether it is before, or after surgery,” said Oliver.

To learn more about Physical Therapy and other Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Services at Jefferson Health in New Jersey, click HERE or call 856-922-5090.