5 Strategies for Relief from Pain
- At age 12, I was diagnosed with scoliosis — meaning my spine had started to curve to one side.
- It helps to wear the right clothes and use a comfortable workspace that promotes natural movement.
- Physical therapy, low-impact exercise, massage, and heat therapy also make a big difference.
Few spines are completely straight, and so it’s normal for your spine to curve slightly to the left or right. But if it twists sideways by more than 10 degrees, then you have a spinal condition called scoliosis.
Scoliosis affects about 2-3% of people in the United States. Roughly 80% of cases are idiopathic, meaning your spine starts curving on its own one day and nobody really knows why. While you can develop scoliosis very early or late in life, most people get diagnosed around puberty, between the age of 10 and 15.
I got diagnosed at age 12, and I don’t recall having a fully pain-free day since. That’s because a crooked spine can warp all the bones attached, from your hips to your ribs. When your muscles and skeleton constantly fight each other to do everyday movements, that’s not a recipe for a good time.
I’m not saying this to inspire pity or alarm. Scoliosis, at least “mild” cases like mine, don’t have to disrupt your life too much — so long as you know how to manage the condition. So I’m taking the opportunity to offer my own perspective, along with advice from professionals, for scoliosis self-care.
Here are five strategies I use to manage scoliosis.
1. Physical therapy
Personally, I’ve benefited a lot from physical therapy (PT), which involves exercises to help improve muscle strength and range of motion.
In scoliosis, the muscles on one side of the curve work overtime to keep your torso upright when your spine pulls you toward the side.
The muscles on the other half of the curve, however, don’t need to do as much work to pull your body in that direction — since your spine is already growing that way. These muscles, then, often weaken and shrink due to a lack of use.
In general, PT aims to correct this asymmetry by beefing up the weaker side so your overworked muscles can get a break. Doing PT during your teen years — while you’re still growing, in other words — may cut back how much your spine curves.
Depending on your spine, your doctor might also recommend a brace — basically a plastic corset that pushes your back to grow straighter. I wore a night brace as a teen, and while I would never call it comfortable, it did prevent my spine from growing into a loop-de-loop.
PT can’t change your curve much in adulthood, however — you’d need surgery for that. Still, it can help reduce your pain and loosen up your back, which can make day-to-day living a lot easier. You can get started by asking your primary care doctor for a referral.
What’s the cost? PT costs can vary widely depending on the equipment your therapist uses, whether they’re in private practice or employed by a hospital, and many other factors. I can’t speak for every insurance plan, but I’ve had multiple plans pitch in to help cover the cost of PT.
“Physical activity is great for people with scoliosis. Strengthening muscles and improving flexibility are key to keeping the pain away and decreasing the likelihood of curvature progression,” says Dr. Ehsan Jazini, a spine surgeon at the Virginia Spine Institute.
Yet while exercise is great, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword for me. For example, I used to love running in middle school, but it no longer loves me back. During the early pandemic lockdowns, I tried jogging outside, but jostling my spine that much always guaranteed the next day was full of pain and regret.
And in fact, people with scoliosis should avoid high-impact exercises that stress the spine, says Chris McDermott, nurse practitioner and life care planner at Intercoastal Consulting and Life Care Planning.
McDermott offers a list of recommended and not recommended physical activities for scoliosis:
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t ever play a casual game of soccer or try some light dumbbells. You just need to listen to your body and proceed with caution.
“As a general rule, avoid anything that causes pain and discomfort. Always clear the activity of choice with your doctor first,” Jazini says.
3. Wardrobe adjustments
Another way to manage your scoliosis symptoms involves changing up your wardrobe. While I’m not a fashion expert, I can tell you that subtle adjustments to your outfit can make big improvements in your daily comfort.
Finding shoes with good arch support and a firm heel can help promote good posture and reduce stress on your spine, McDermott says. This means opting for sneakers or boots over high heels or sandals.
Due to scoliosis, my spine tilted my pelvis far enough that one of my legs grew longer than the other in order to reach the ground. People with these mismatched legs often benefit from shoe lifts, which are tiny wedges you slip under your shoe’s insole. I wear a shoe lift in my sneakers to prop up my left leg so my hips can be more level.
But here’s one very important piece of advice to keep in mind: When you buy your shoe lift, make sure to put it in the correct shoe. I once put it on the wrong side, which made my pelvis even more tilted and gave me a limp for two weeks before I figured out my mistake.
The wrong accessory can weigh you down — literally. McDermott recommends avoiding heavy backpacks or crossbody bags, since these can cause uneven weight distribution and strain your spine.
I’ve been using rolling backpacks and suitcases since I was old enough to carry my own stuff. Even if you don’t have scoliosis, a good roller bag can make travel a lot easier.
Lots of people who wear bras find shopping for them difficult. But when you have a crooked back, this chore can become downright overwhelming. Just when you finally find a bra that fits your cup size, you realize the straps won’t stay up or the band is too tight. The struggle is real.
If you have uneven shoulders, Jazini recommends wearing bras with adjustable straps so you can customize the length to each shoulder. Bras with thicker straps and cushioning can also be nice options, as they take pressure off your back.
Personally, I wear bras with looser bands to avoid squeezing my ribs. I like to use attachable bra extenders, but you could also buy a sister size of the bra you’re already wearing. For example, if you’re wearing a 34C bra — meaning you have a 34-inch band with C cups — you might find that a 36B bra fits more comfortably.
4. Workspace upgrades
If you’re like me, you spend most of your day in front of the computer, both for work and leisure. It’s worth the investment to create an ergonomic desk setup that lets you move your body more naturally.
Here are some tips to make a scoliosis-friendly workspace:
The best ergonomic gear for your home office
If you’re dealing with scoliosis, ergonomic products like office chairs, computer mice, and keyboards can help you create a great at-home workspace.
- Best ergonomic office chair: Branch Ergonomic Chair – See at Branch
- Best ergonomic computer mouse: Razer Pro Click – See at Amazon and Best Buy
- Best ergonomic keyboard: Microsoft Sculpt – See at Amazon and Walmart
5. Pain relief
While taking steps to prevent pain before it happens can make a difference, sometimes you still need direct relief.
Some of the strategies I’ve found helpful include:
- Massage: According to a 2022 study, massage may help reduce scoliosis-related pain by fighting inflammation. I’ve found deep-tissue massage is great for working out knots in my back, where the muscle fibers have grown tight from poor posture and overuse.
- Heat and cold therapy: I prefer to treat aches with heating pads, as heat can increase the blood flow to stiff muscles and stop spasms. However, other people prefer cooling pads, which can lower swelling and numb sore muscles.
- TENS machine: A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator, aka TENS device, sends electrical pulses into your skin. These pulses tell your body to start producing its natural pain relievers: endorphins. While the TENS device doesn’t hurt, be warned the pulsing sensation can feel unnerving at first.
- Pain medication: I occasionally use nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin and ibuprofen to get relief. These over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers can ease inflammation, but they may interact with alcohol and other prescription medications. It’s always a good idea to check with your doctor if you also take other medications or supplements.
Scoliosis is a lifelong spinal condition that can have an ongoing impact on your daily routine and activities.
I’ve lived with this condition since I was 12, but I’ve learned to manage my symptoms by adjusting my exercise routines, wardrobe, and workplace setup. Physical therapy and at-home pain relief have also made a difference
However, every person has their own unique needs. To get more support with finding the best approach for you, talk to your doctor about the best treatment plan for your specific scoliosis symptoms.
The Insidexpress is now on Telegram and Google News. Join us on Telegram and Google News, and stay updated.