Exercises for scoliosis in teens

Adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS) is a rare (2% to 3% of the general population) spinal deformity affecting young people aged 10 through the end of the growth period. The deformity may continue into adulthood. AIS is characterised by one or more three-dimensional spinal curves. Disability, cosmetic deformity, pain, activity limitation, quality of life issues, breathing problems and the possibility of the scoliosis remaining with the person into and throughout adulthood are commonly associated with this condition. The cause of AIS is unknown.

Treatment for AIS varies according to the degree of severity of the curves. Just the same, exercise is almost always a part of the treatment plan. In milder cases, exercise may be the main treatment, and in more severe cases it may serve as an adjunct. In the UK and the US, physical therapy for scoliosis consists mainly of general strengthening and stretching exercises, along with exercise protocols with which the treating therapist is familiar. There is a corresponding feeling among practitioners in these geographical locations that physical therapy for scoliosis is not effective.

Scoliosis specific exercises (SSEs) are individualised exercises aimed at reducing the deformity. SSEs are taught in clinics that specialize in scoliosis. The exercises work by changing the soft tissue that affects the spine. SSEs are also thought to work by altering control of spinal movement. There are no known side effects or risks to using SSEs .

The purpose of this review was to evaluate the effectiveness of SSEs in reducing curve progression and postponing or avoiding invasive treatment such as surgery in adolescents with AIS. Two studies involving 154 patients total were included. The review found no evidences for or against SSE. The two included studies yielded very low quality evidence that SSEs added to other treatments are more effective than electrical stimulation, traction and posture training for avoiding curve progression, and that SSEs as a standalone treatment yield almost the same results as general physiotherapy.

Possible limitations of this review included the small number of studies that met the inclusion criteria and a high risk of bias, particularly selection bias. More randomised controlled trials are needed in this area, along with a deeper understanding of the types of SSEs useful for the adolescent with AIS.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is a lack of high quality evidence to recommend the use of SSE for AIS. One very low quality study suggested that these exercises may be more effective than electrostimulation, traction and postural training to avoid scoliosis progression, but better quality research needs to be conducted before the use of SSE can be recommended in clinical practice.

Read the full abstract...

Adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS) is a three-dimensional deformity of the spine . While AIS can progress during growth and cause a surface deformity, it is usually not symptomatic. However, in adulthood, if the final spinal curvature surpasses a certain critical threshold, the risk of health problems and curve progression is increased. The use of scoliosis-specific exercises (SSE) to reduce progression of AIS and postpone or avoid other more invasive treatments is controversial.


To evaluate the efficacy of SSE in adolescent patients with AIS.

Search strategy: 

The following databases (up to 30 March 2011) were searched with no language limitations: CENTRAL (The Cochrane Library 2011, issue 2), MEDLINE (from January 1966), EMBASE (from January 1980), CINHAL (from January 1982), SportDiscus (from January 1975), PsycInfo (from January 1887), PEDro (from January 1929). We screened reference lists of articles and also conducted an extensive handsearch of grey literature.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials and prospective cohort studies with a control group comparing exercises with no treatment, other treatment, surgery, and different types of exercises.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently selected studies, assessed risk of bias and extracted data.

Main results: 

Two studies (154 participants) were included. There is low quality evidence from one randomised controlled study that exercises as an adjunctive to other conservative treatments increase the efficacy of these treatments (thoracic curve reduced: mean difference (MD) 9.00, (95% confidence interval (CI) 5.47 to 12.53); lumbar curve reduced:MD 8.00, (95% CI 5.08 to 10.92)). There is very low quality evidence from a prospective controlled cohort study that scoliosis-specific exercises structured within an exercise programme can reduce brace prescription (risk ratio (RR) 0.24, (95% CI 0.06 to1.04) as compared to usual physiotherapy (many different kinds of general exercises according to the preferences of the single therapists within different facilities).