Returning to physical activity after surgery for adolescent idiopathic scoliosis

Sport and physical activity are essential for psychosocial and physical well-being in children and adolescents, and youngsters with scoliosis are not subject to any limitations in this regard: they can do sports and other physical activities just like their peers can.

In severe scoliosis, i.e., in individuals with curves measuring more than 50° and presenting significant aesthetic and developmental deformities despite undergoing orthotic/bracing treatment properly administered according to the SOSORT criteria, surgery is indicated. 

“In some cases, patients who undergo corrective surgery for scoliosis may reduce their level of physical activity postoperatively due to a loss of spinal flexibility and pain. This inevitably impacts negatively on their quality of life – says dr Carmelo Pulici, physiatrist – No guidelines have yet been published on the resumption of physical activity after surgery for adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, and “expert opinion” is therefore all we have to rely on. Consequently, different surgeons may give different indications, depending on their experience and the particular type of approach”.

There are also individual factors at play, and the decision to resume physical activity may therefore depend on: the type of surgery performed, how the body responds and adapts to the metal rods inserted to correct the spine, the extent of the fusion, how recently the surgery was carried out, the characteristics of the patient, and also the type of sport practised (non-contact, contact or collision).  

For example, while some surgeons allow contact sports to be resumed six months after surgery, others recommend waiting a year, and some even rule out the resumption of collision sports altogether ( 

“In one study, return to sport/physical activities after surgery was examined using a specially created questionnaire ( By six months, most patients had returned to the activities they did before the surgery” – explains Dr Pulici. “The authors found that patients returned to athletics much earlier than expected. Despite this, there were no cases of loss of correction, implant failure or complications among the 95 patients included in the study”. 

A new surgical technique

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in vertebral body tethering (VBT), a new surgical technique used only in children and in early adolescence and, even then, only in carefully selected patients, given that the method is still experimental. VBT is proposed as a possible alternative to spinal fusion (currently the most widely used technique for the surgical treatment of scoliosis). Unlike spinal fusion, it does not reduce the mobility of the spine. 

“According to a recent study, VBT allows daily activities and sports to be resumed within three months of the surgery” Dr Pulici goes on. “Furthermore, most of the patients examined in the study reported an improvement in their athletic performance, and some were found to be doing more sports than before undergoing VBT”.

Even though surgeons today tend to allow patients to return to sports (even high-intensity ones) earlier than in the past (, we are still a long way from seeing a common approach to the management of postoperative resumption of physical activity in this patient population.

In the absence of guidelines, we at Isico recommend that patients turn to an experienced therapist in the post-operative period to ensure a gradual and safe return to physical activity, obviously following the instructions received from their surgeon.

It is important to avoid falling into the vicious cycle of a sedentary lifestyle. The less active you are, the less you feel inclined to do physical activity and the greater the risks to your health due to your lack of movement.

Physical activity in adults with scoliosis: what and how much?

Before we start talking about scoliosis and physical activity in adults, a few background considerations are called for.

It is important to remember that every patient has a unique history. Even though different patients can present similar scoliosis features, it should not be assumed that the same kind of physical exercise will suit all of them.  

It is also necessary to bear in mind certain thresholds of curvature: scoliosis curves measuring less than 25°-30°, especially if treated in adolescence, are extremely unlikely to worsen over time. Conversely, curves that exceed 45°-50° must be monitored, through specialist check-ups, throughout adulthood.

Then there is the “pain” factor. Scoliosis is not necessarily associated with pain. Nevertheless, pain is a factor that needs to be taken into account when choosing what physical activity or sport to do. As a rule, any kind of movement that does not worsen pain, or that alleviates it, can be considered a great help.

Exercise, in a general sense, helps to relieve pain, improve functionality and improve quality of life: and these are the real objectives. A healthy back, which does not necessarily mean a straight back, is one that is capable of withstanding the stresses of everyday life.
Furthermore, when you have scoliosis, it is especially important to train the muscles that support the spine, so as to stabilise it.

It is important that we distinguish clearly between sport and self-correction exercises i.e. active movements designed to lead to better positioning of the spine in the three planes of space, which the patient performs independently.
These exercises, prescribed specifically for scoliosis, with the aim of stabilising the condition, serve a therapeutic purpose. On the other hand, there is no sport or general physical activity of any kind that can be said to “treat” scoliosis.

It is also necessary to beware of certain old “beliefs” regarding scoliosis and sport. In the past, it has been claimed that certain sporting activities can “treat” or vice versa exacerbate scoliosis.

In reality, however, the literature contains no reliable data showing that certain sports activities might be harmful for adults with scoliosis.
The only question mark concerns activities (e.g. belly dancing) that demand considerable flexibility and mobility of the spine, since these could destabilise it and lead to a worsening of the condition.
To date, there are no sports that are specifically prohibited or recommended. Indeed, contrary to what some believe, swimming and Pilates cannot be guaranteed to be beneficial, while running and tennis do not need to be considered risky activities.
In adulthood, any sport, providing it is started gradually, practiced regularly, enjoyed and performed within your own limits, can only be good for you.

In conclusion, it is worth underlining that adults with scoliosis can and MUST do some form of physical activity, at least 2-3 times a week, choosing from the various disciplines. Those whose scoliosis causes them pain must make sure their chosen activity respects this limitation.