Yoga as Scoliosis Treatment? The Evidence Is Thin

ABC News recently ran a story about a woman who treated her scoliosis-related back pain through yoga, fleshed out with information about yoga as a general treatment for low back pain. That might work for some people, but the framing of the story invited readers to choose yoga in lieu of medical care without considering all the factors.

“To suggest, based on one anecdote, that readers with severe scoliosis might look to yoga as an alternative to surgery is misleading and irresponsible,” said Gary Schwitzer on HealthNewsReview.org.

It’s a common media mistake, Schwitzer said. Reporters often use only compelling personal anecdotes, instead of anecdotes plus science, to show an association that might not exist, and that can be dangerous if they spurn evidence in favor of trend in a medical situation.

Two words: measles vaccine.

There is some evidence that yoga can be an effective approach for relief of chronic low back pain, Schwitzer acknowledged, but there is no evidence that it’s a suitable alternative to surgery for people with severe scoliosis.

Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine. Most of the time, the cause is unknown, and it often presents in childhood, and affects more girls than boys. Sometimes it’s congenital, or present at birth, and it can result from a nervous system disorder that affects muscles, such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida and polio.

According to a survey a few years ago by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1 in 4 U.S. adults had suffered from lower back pain within the previous three months, so there’s a lot of interest in anything that provides relief.

Readers of this blog and of Pat’s newsletters are well aware that one treatment – back surgery – carries high costs and considerable risk. So a noninvasive measure like yoga should be considered, but not without knowing its scientific, as well as anecdotal foundation, and its pros and cons.

The ABC story didn’t mention cost (which even at the toniest yoga classes would be considerably less than surgery) or clinical proof. It described benefits in vague terms – “back pain patients who learned yoga had better back function and were better able to manage their pain” – without saying how often the individuals practiced yoga, how much better their back function was or what is meant by better pain management.

The story did mention one study as a randomized, controlled trial, but didn’t cite the authors, the organizations they were affiliated with or when and where the studies were published.

“While the story is correct in noting that there is a ‘lack of conclusive research,'” Schwitzer said, “we’d need more than that blanket statement to award a satisfactory rating here.”

ABC didn’t adequately explain potential harms of yoga, a physical discipline that can cause injuries, especially for beginners or people suffering from back pain. “Moreover,” Schwitzer noted, “there is no evidence that yoga is safe for patients with severe scoliosis who are considering surgery.”

The network also didn’t compare yoga with other options to treat back pain and scoliosis, and didn’t clearly distinguish between back pain resulting from scoliosis vs. other causes.

What about braces, therapeutic exercises or medications as treatment options? You won’t find them mentioned in that story.

So ABC featured a woman diagnosed with a serious spine disorder who looked like a circus acrobat in the prime of her mobility to encourage You Too! to turn pain into performance by taking your curved spine to yoga class.

It’s an appealing prescription, but an awfully thin one.

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