The body needs ample nourishment from a range of food sources to function optimally. As a spinal condition, it might not seem like scoliosis would have a clear effect on the digestive system, but as the brain and spine work in tandem to form the body’s central nervous system, its effects can be felt throughout the body, and not just in the back.
The digestive system consists of a group of organs working together to convert whole foods entering the body into energy and nutrients. The effects of scoliosis can be felt neurologically, structurally, and in spinal mobility: all areas that can impact the digestive system’s function/motility.
If a person is diagnosed with scoliosis, this means they have an abnormal sideways spinal curvature, with rotation, and a minimum Cobb angle of 10 degrees.
The spine plays many important roles within the body, including providing it with structure, flexibility, coordinating reflexes, protecting internal organs, and working with the brain to relay important messages.
As the primary nerves of the body, the 31 pairs of spinal nerves that are housed within the spinal column control many important bodily functions, including digestion.
Every time a person eats, their nerves send a signal to the digestive tract to initiate a series of activities, so if a spinal condition like scoliosis is interfering with the nerves and their ability to send/receive messages, it can impact multiple systems at work within the body.
When the spine’s vertebrae shift out of alignment due to the development of a scoliotic curve, both the spinal cord and neurology are affected. When neurology is impacted negatively, it can affect how organs function; in the chiropractic world, the effect of misalignment/nerve pressure is known as subluxation.
In order for the body to fully benefit from the food that enters it, the digestive system has to be functioning on all levels: ingestion, secretion, mixing and movement, digestion, absorption, and excretion.
If any one of the above stages of digestion are impacted, it can slow down and/or disrupt the entire process.
Now that we have spoken about scoliosis and the digestive system in general terms, let’s break down the different ways in which scoliosis can affect the digestive system’s function by addressing some common questions.
Scoliosis, particularly in severe cases, and/or if left untreated, can affect the entire body.
It is important to understand, however, that as a highly-variable condition that can range from mild to moderate and severe, no two cases are the same, including experienced symptoms.
Having scoliosis doesn’t automatically mean digestive issues are forthcoming, but in general, the more severe a condition is, the more likely a person is to develop complications, such as digestive issues.
As a progressive spinal condition, it’s in the nature of scoliosis to worsen over time, especially if left untreated, so it’s also important to understand that a person’s symptoms at the time of diagnosis aren’t indicative of where they will stay moving forward, which is why proactive treatment is so important.
We know that the spine and rib cage together help protect important organs, and we also know that as one of the main signs of scoliosis, postural changes commonly involve the rib cage and torso.
If a spine is abnormally curved, the larger that unnatural curvature gets, the more likely it is to cause postural changes, such as the development of a rib arch, and encroach upon the natural space that the organs occupy and function within.
Not only can the heart and lungs be affected by severe scoliosis, organs involved in the digestive process can also be impacted as muscles, the stomach, and surrounding organs are facing compression due to the unnatural spinal curve.
So when the stomach and organs involved in digestion (liver, pancreas, and gallbladder) are exposed to uneven pressure, this can interfere with how they absorb and digest food, as well as how they secrete bile and other fluids involved in the digestive process.
As a structural condition, scoliosis involves a structural abnormality within the spine itself, and this can cause postural changes that impact the rib cage, the stomach, and internal organs involved in the digestion, absorption, and elimination of food from the body.
In addition, once scoliosis becomes a compressive condition in adulthood, it can actually shorten the torso, which can also cause digestive problems, including stomach pain.
Part of the connection between scoliosis and digestive-system issues is due to the organ compression and spinal rigidity that can increase as scoliosis progresses.
In mentioning that scoliosis can “become a compressive condition,” what this refers to is the difference between scoliosis in adolescents (the most common form) and scoliosis in adults.
In adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS) diagnosed between the ages of 10 and 18, for patients who have not yet reached skeletal maturity, scoliosis is not commonly painful, and this is because the lengthening motion of a growing spine can counteract the compressive force of a scoliotic curve; however, once skeletal maturity has been reached in adulthood, the condition becomes compressive, known to be the main cause of condition-related pain.
In adults, the abnormal spinal curvature can actually shorten the length of the torso, reducing the space for digestive organs along the gastrointestinal (GI) tract to function optimally.
The more progression that occurs, the more rigid the spine can get, and this directly impairs the GI tract’s ability to move food particles through it efficiently.
When food particles can’t move properly through the digestive system, this can cause painful stomach bloating, acid reflux, nausea, and can also lead to bowel issues.
When spinal rigidity causes the digestive tract to slow down and/or alters it, it can cause a number of unpleasant symptoms including stomach pain, bloating, and bowel problems.
In addition, when food particles sit in the digestive tract for too long, there is also the risk of developing a blockage and/or infection.
Also known as ‘lazy bowel syndrome,’ a slow digestive system can cause abdominal pain and bloating, constipation, and the ability to produce fewer bowel movements than normal.
When the digestive system isn’t functioning optimally, this can also affect the body’s ability to absorb important nutrients from foods, which can lead to a host of issues including dehydration and malnourishment.
To be clear, while scoliosis has the potential to cause these types of symptoms, the condition is highly treatable, and in many cases, through proactive treatment, these types of complications can be avoided.
As a CLEAR-certified scoliosis chiropractor, I believe that the best way to address a patient’s digestive-system problems is to treat the scoliosis proactively; reducing the curve and compression can help improve the health of the digestive system without the use of laxatives and/or additional medications.
In addition, while there are never treatment guarantees, proactive treatment started early in a condition’s progressive line can prevent increasing condition severity and related symptoms.
While the connection between the spine and digestion might not be immediately clear to everyone, as part of the central nervous system, the spine is involved in virtually all working systems within the body.
As an abnormal sideways spinal curvature, with rotation, subluxation can cause a variety of symptoms felt throughout the body, including digestive problems.
As one of the most common telltale signs of scoliosis, postural changes can impact the body on a structural level and leave less space for internal organs to function within, and as a progressive condition, if it becomes a compressive condition (as in adults), it can shorten the length of the torso, leading to increased levels of organ compression and a further loss of space that’s needed for them to function optimally.
In addition, as a scoliotic curve increases in size, the spine loses flexibility and becomes more rigid, and this can directly affect the digestive system’s motility; the more mobility the spine has, the more the digestive system is able to move and efficiently pass food particles through.
Here at the CLEAR Scoliosis Institute, we believe in the merits of proactive treatment delivered through a conservative and functional chiropractic-centered treatment approach.
While there are never treatment guarantees, through proactive treatment started as close to the time of diagnosis as possible, a curvature reduction can impact the condition on a structural level and reduce compression, thereby relieving the pressure and uneven forces the digestive system is being exposed to, not to mention addressing affected neurology and spinal rigidity.