The official organization for Hanna Somatics information, resources, continuing education, practitioner support, and community.

Back to SomaTimes Magazine

Section 1:  What is Scoliosis and why does it occur?  How can Somatics help?

               Laura Gates

Hi Everyone!

Here are some ideas and strategies on the subject of scoliosis. This is part one of several articles on the subject that I plan to contribute to the SomaTimes. I am assuming that my readers include a range of experience from very skilled practitioners to students that are newer to this work, in training, somatic movement teachers, and everyone in between. May these ideas and strategies prove useful to you.

Here is some shorthand that I'll be using in these articles: GL = green light reflex, RL = red light reflex, TR = trauma reflex, ROM = range of motion, Les = Lesson, R = right, L = left, SMA = sensory motor amnesia. I like to designate directions of "north" meaning towards the head, and "south" towards the feet.

Our somatic movement practice and hands-on clinical methods are, as you probably know if you’re reading this, excellent for preventing scoliosis and uneven posture, as well as for improving it. My intention with this article is to share some insights and ideas, some pandiculations, both self-care and hands-on, based on the results I’ve seen with my clients and myself, over the last 11 years, and ideas my colleagues and students have shared with me. Some of the movement patterns, or variations I will use throughout these articles, I originally developed for myself, for the pain and tension issues that showed up with my own scoliotic pattern.  Necessity is the mother of invention, of course, and what more perfect laboratory for discovery than one’s own brilliant soma!


Laura Gates  :-)


Section 1

What is Scoliosis?

     Scoliosis is a three dimensional curvature of the spine involving lateral and rotational deviations. These held curves and torques in the spine may also be a dominant contractive movement pattern, showing up when that person lifts something heavy, levers off the spine lifting a leg, or is triggered by stress. It may increase in response to stress, and emotional or physical trauma. If you have scoliosis and listen carefully, you can identify the scoliotic contractive pattern as the “beginning movement“ that initiates almost every gesture or activity.

Why does it occur?

     The theories on why scoliosis happens are many. The vast majority of scoliosis cases diagnosed are called “idiopathic”, meaning no known cause. (article 1 here) Of course the brain and nervous system has some perfectly good reasons for creating the curves, but sometimes it can seem quite mysterious.  The majority of onset of scoliotic scenarios is in adolescence, with a higher percentage for females. Quite often, I see the onset, or a sudden increase in previously slight curvatures, following a big growth spurt, physical trauma, accident, such as a fall from a tree, bike, horse, or the stress of pushing too hard in training in a sport, dance, or a combination of several of these factors.

     Structural causes can include deformation of the vertebrae in utero into wedge shapes, leg length discrepancy, the spinal cord not growing as the spinal column grows creating tension and pulling the spine into curves (article 2 here) and more. Consider one leg substantially longer than the other. The pelvis is spilled to one side, so of course the brain is going to organize a series of lateral curves (and twists) on top of that platform to keep you upright and looking forward.

     It only makes sense that emotional trauma, leaving its imprint in the nervous system as contractive patterns, may lead to scoliosis. Here’s one interesting story to consider regarding emotional trauma and scoliosis.


>> I met a music therapist years ago, who had a substantial scoliosis. She told me her theory based on her own story and the clients she worked with. She saw a pattern of scoliosis onset related to “rebellion”, that natural part of adolescence where a human rejects and fights against their parents, the paradigms of family and culture, as part of the process of transformation from the child towards the adult they are to become. This therapist told me she observed that people who fully expressed their rebellion were less likely to develop a scoliosis, whereas people who either suppressed their rebellion or postponed it, thereby pushing it down, were more likely to have a scoliosis. I don’t have any scientific studies to corroborate her theories, but I can say that her story rang true for my history.

How can Somatics help?

     From the viewpoint of our work, let us view the bones as moving because muscles move them, and held in a position because the muscles hold them there, in contractive patterns, which are old brain habits of habituation and SMA. Our neuromuscular system is the most changeable part of the musculoskeletal system, with both sensory and motor loops to the brain. The muscular system moves our bones, fascia and everything else inside our skin, in response to the brain’s signals. If the brain’s signal governing the resting length of a muscle group says “short”, it’s a part of contractive pattern, which may be the imprint of trauma, emotional and/or physical, or learned from repetitive movement or lack of activity. Not only will the ROM of that muscle be compromised but the SMA shows up as a “blind spot” for the brain, with less control and sensation. If the habituated muscles create spinal curves and rib distortion in the central, upper torso, this limits the breath and oxygen intake, compromising the space for the lung, and possibly the heart. This is especially true with scoliotic curves of more than 30 degrees, which can compromise cardiopulmonary health.

Muscles as tourniquets:

     In its habituated shortened state, the muscle acts more like a tourniquet instead of the natural pump that it should be for all fluids, blood, lymphatic and more. This compromises nourishment to all the tissues, with negative impact on organ systems. To restore more movement is to restore more nourishment to the tissues and organs.


Trauma Reflex Pattern:

     If the shortened habituation of the muscles in the ribs, waist, shoulder is strong enough, it will not only lock down one side of the torso—perhaps hike the hip and pull down the shoulder—but may over time (or more rapidly) pull the spine into a 3-dimensional curve. The brain will try to create balance, as is its nature, and likely create a compensatory curve above and/or below, which creates scoliosis. (That’s only one scenario.) And whatever caused it in the first place, it tends to perpetuate itself and increase as the brain adapts to it.

     I’ll use my own spine as an example (see drawing 2).  If a scoliosis looks like a low L shoulder, with the head twisted and tilted R, I may catch myself slumping into that position of habit while relaxing, working on the computer, driving the car, and especially while using my dominant hand. Those unconscious habits may govern my sleeping position, thereby habituating the patterns even more. It takes some diligent, ongoing work, noticing, gaining awareness, and designing strategies, to counteract these patterns in everyday movement, as well as somatic efforts in class and on the table, to make some big changes. (More ideas for counteracting patterns in daily life in subsequent articles.)

Continue reading in the SomaTimes - Section 2: My own story with scoliosis.