back brace for adolescents with scoliosisTrapped inside a scoliosis brace for 16 hours a day over two years, young Leah LaRocco suffered both physical and emotional scars. Now, as she looks back at that time in her life, she calls the contraption a “modern-day straight jacket for teenage girls” and compares spinal braces to “medieval torture devices.”

“Wearing this shell … was a living nightmare for an introverted, active teen who played a sport and loved being outdoors,” she said. “The amazing thing is that, 20 years later, the treatment options for scoliosis remain the same: back brace or surgery.”

It’s a common misconception that bracing and surgery are the only ways to stop curve progression. In fact, clinical studies have raised significant doubt about the effectiveness of bracing as a scoliosis treatment. Yet doctors continue to fall back on this outdated treatment method year after year.

For parents who don’t want to subject their child to the pain of scoliosis bracing, there are better alternatives out there. But first it’s important to learn why braces for scoliosis aren’t as effective as medical science seems to believe.

The Problem with Scoliosis Bracing

While some studies suggest that scoliosis bracing can stop curves from progressing to 50 degrees, others are inconclusive. Researchers who compared the outcomes of patients who wore braces against those who didn’t concluded that both groups ultimately had the same chances of being recommended for surgery.

Bracing may seem to work in the short term, contorting the spine into an alignment that looks acceptable in X-rays, but any positive effects will often reverse themselves once the bracing stops—even if the spine has reached skeletal maturity. One patient who stopped wearing a brace at age 19 showed a 10-degree progression over the next six years.

Part of the problem with hard braces is that they treat scoliosis as though it’s a spinal issue when it’s actually it’s a neuro-musculoskeletal problem. It treats only the symptom (the curve) rather than addressing the underlying dysfunction. What’s worse, braces for scoliosis can actually inflict more harm then benefit, causing:

Weakened muscles. If scoliosis bracing works at all, it’s by forcing the spine into better alignment. But once the bracing stops, there’s nothing keeping the curves from worsening again. In the meantime, muscles and nerves in the back have atrophied, possibly sustaining permanent damage, leaving the spine even less capable of realigning itself than before. The resulting muscular weakness often causes further deterioration.

Lack of compliance. One of the reasons scoliosis bracing often proves ineffective is that the trauma of wearing one often prevents children from complying with their treatment, compromising its effectiveness. In some studies, kids with braces wore them only 10 percent of the time, while six in 10 said they felt handicapped by them.

Breathing problems. A study of one of the most common braces for scoliosis, the TLSO brace, found that the device squeezes the chest wall and abdomen, significantly diminishing breathing capacity, oxygen levels and other pulmonary functions. Another study of children wearing hard braces showed a 30 percent loss of vital capacity and a 45 percent decrease in the amount of air released during normal exhalation—changes similar to what you might expect in a long-term smoker. Such respiratory distress can cause anxiety, headaches, cognitive dysfunction and sleep disturbances.

Treating Scoliosis without Bracing

scolismart exercise tool for scoliosis trainingFortunately, there are better scoliosis treatment options out there. Since the spinal curvature stems from a neuro-musculoskeletal imbalance, the most effective long-term treatments involve re-educating the brain to correct the spine’s alignment.

Scoliosis curves develop when the brain doesn’t recognize that the spine is misaligned. However, specialized exercises that trigger the body’s automatic responses can alert the brain that something is wrong and help the body adjust itself naturally—without the external force of a brace.

ScoliSMART’s doctors recommend a multifaceted scoliosis treatment program that includes:

For decades, doctors have fallen back on the same scoliosis treatments: bracing and surgery. It’s time we put an end to the practice of forcing our children’s spines into alignment. There are better and more effective ways to stop curves from progressing.