One of my favorite living people with scoliosis is Usain Bolt. Talk about not letting scoliosis hold you back! I have to admit I’m a total Olympics junky and have rooted for Usain throughout the last 15 years.
Over 10 years ago, during one of the summer Olympics, I was teaching a regular weekly lesson to one of my scoli kid clients when her dad told me that Usain Bolt had scoliosis. I was shocked and started researching him incessantly—his spine, his trainers, his view on his scoli, and the exercises he did to care for his back.
Fast forward to just a few months ago when I was teaching at a conference about scoliosis and exercise. One of the men attending told me I had to read a NY Times article about Usain and his back—and his legs. It turns out he has a leg length discrepancy, and scientists believe that’s what gives him the extra power and speed.
Usually when people have a leg length discrepancy, trainers work to level the hips out with shoe lifts and similar items. The Times article argues that Usain’s sprinting advantage actually stems from the unevenness in his legs. The difference in length allows him to have more power when he pushes off from the shorter leg. That threw my head for a spin.
Here is an excerpt from the article that made me do another double take:
“It could be that Bolt has naturally settled into his stride to accommodate the effects of scoliosis. The condition curved his spine to the right and made his right leg half an inch shorter than his left, according to his autobiography.”
I was beginning to wonder, did the scoliosis cause the leg length discrepancy? There can be several causes of a hip sitting higher, and one is tight tissue. The tissue on the concave side of a lumbar scoli curve can be so tight it can actually pull the hip bone up, creating a the effect that one leg is longer. This doesn’t make the actual leg bones longer though. The leg bones are still the same length, but one hip does sit a little higher. But, after tissue manipulation the hips can level out to the same height.
I don’t believe tight tissue is what caused Usain’s hip to sit higher. He had a full-time massage therapist that worked on him daily when he was in the prime of his running career. His massage therapist and other trainers would have caught any tight hip tissue and released it, allowing his hip to drop back down.
Instead, I think Usain has a bony leg length discrepancy, and that is what caused his scoliosis—meaning he has functional scoliosis. His spine bent into a scoliotic curve as a function of one leg being longer. I think Usain even has it wrong in his autobiography. Usain’s scoliosis didn’t cause his differing leg lengths; the difference in his legs caused the scoliosis. This is a good illustration of how much misinformation there is surrounding scoliosis—even Usain Bolt, who we can guess sees some of the top practitioners in the world, was misinformed about the root cause of his scoliosis
His longer thigh bone caused the same side hip to sit higher, which caused his spine to curve to the twice (his scoliosis) to compensate. The scoliosis didn’t start from the spine and go down to his legs. It started in his legs (one being half an inch longer in length than the other) and went up to his spine.
I’ve worked with countless scoli clients with leg length discrepancies and know how misunderstood this is around the world. If you think a leg length discrepancy plays a part in your scoliosis, my newest workshop Scoliosis Leg Length with FusionPilatesEDU is for you.
Whether you have scoliosis or work with scoli clients, it’s vital that you learn to assess if a case of scoliosis is caused by a leg length discrepancy. Equally important is to know how that assessment information plays into the scoliosis care plan.
All too often I’ve seen that those with scoliosis and their practitioners just focus on the back and ignore the rest of the body. But what if another part of the body besides the back is actually what caused the scoliosis in the first place? It’s an interesting situation and one that played out in the story below.
If you think you or a client may have a leg length discrepancy, I’d also suggest you read Analyzing Scoliosis, as there’s a whole section in the book on analyzing and dealing with leg length discrepancies. You can also check out the in-person Scoliosis Intensive workshop offered regularly at Spiral Spine Pilates Studio.
If you do find out you have a bony leg length discrepancy, there’s nothing to fear. Who knew that you share the same super hero power as Usain!
Erin Myers is an international presenter on scoliosis and founder of Spiral Spine, a company designed to enrich the lives of people with scoliosis. She’s also created a number of scoliosis resources including the books I Have Scoliosis; Now What? and Analyzing Scoliosis, the scoliometer app (iPhone and Android) and many videos. She owns Spiral Spine Pilates studio in Brentwood, TN, which allows her to actively pursue her passion of helping those with scoliosis through Pilates, which she has been doing for over 15 years.
Patrica anderson says
My son is 16 years old and has idiopathic scoliosis with a 60° curvature. He has a brace and has had one since he was 13 years old. He does Schroth physical therapy and works out in a sport conditioning class. He currently has no pain or mobility issues and is very flexible. The Only medical recommendations (3 opinions so far), beyond bracing and Schroth PT has been spinal fusion T2-t13, this is tentatively scheduled for November of this year. As a parent this is so difficult. I am heartbroken snd stressed, as I am not sure how to make this decision for my son’s life. They say if he waits the curve will continue throughout his life. If he waits and requires surgery later it will be a much harder recovery. If he ultimately has surgery, I do not want to regret this decision or impose pain and lifelong restrictions on him. Any advice or suggestions would be appreciated.
Erin Myers says
Thanks for finding the courage to reach out. I see you and the choices that you’re up against right now. My staff and I have so many parents with kids in the same exact position. We also have a ton of adult client who’ve had surgery, and many who’ve not, at my studio and those we virtually see around the world. We get to see lots of prospectives on how best to handle scoli. Without a shadow of a doubt, I would say wait. There are a few amazing surgeons, doing some cool surgeries on adults who are ending up great. Please do not get fear mongered into thinking your son will end up worse off if he doesn’t have surgery now, if you or he doesn’t deem it necessary. If you want to chat more you can book a virtual lesson with either me or Jennifer at my studio and we can suggest a few more exercises, other practitioners near you, and share what we know about great surgeries and techniques. Also, my latest book I Have Scoliosis; Now What? is now available on amazon and there’s a whole section in there on what research shows those with scoli are deficient in, inside their bodies (really, where scoli started). Regardless of it you have a brace, surgery, or choose to handle it conservatively another way, you MUST deal with what’s going on internal. That must get dealt with. And, we’ve seen that once that gets dealt with oftentimes scoli halts its progression.
Alexander the Great, Yo Yo Ma, Vansessa Williams, and Princess Eugenie, and king RIchard lll all had scoliosis.
Brandy Novicka says
Yes! Myself. I had my first scoliosis fusion at 12 years old. I was an athlete:soccer, track, basketball. I also have “S” curve. I went on to play college basketball for a division 3 college. But I had another spinal diagnosis: spina bifida occulta. At 23 I had both rods removed from T3-T10. I went on to coach as playing was become painful. My core was the one thing I always kept perfect! Core training for scoliosis patients is so important. Im now 39 and recovering my 3rd fusion L5-S1. I also have pars defect, spondylolisis, degen disk disease. This has been the hardest one as my legs have been greatly affected. But I’m trying real hard and training and trying to get my legs back! Sont give up!
Thanks spiral spine sight for enlightening me that usain bolt have scolosis…i always see him as my idol not only in matter of running but also as a fittest man in the world…i too suffer from bad posture or mild hunchback type….it feels great to know that any physical deformity doesn’t matter when you are a legend…i also wanna add that those bodybuilders or fitness model who boast showing their perfect back couldn’t compare a little inch of bolt’s success or fitness level….legends are made this way god gave him deformity but gave him a lightning speed too….at last i want to say usain bolt is a legend and if you have something special it doesn’t matter about your posture or deformities. …once again thank you spiral spine sight for inspiring people who are stopped by such diseases. Or deformities. ..
Dorlan Joshway says
My son shows to have all the signs of scoliosis and he runs track. he has received an x-ray in which we will know next week. The condition is causing him to lose arm mobility midway through the event and he then regains it afterwards. Definitely will need to see how severe it is.
Don’t worry dorlan god works in mysterious ways and don’t feel sad about this issue it was not in your hand that your son got postural deformity…consult a doctor and as you have done and let you and your son don’t bother about it…
Erin Myers says
There are many things you can proactively do for your son. Many. Please go to the scoliosis resources page of this site and you’ll be guided on what steps to take for your son.
Edmond Amponsah says
Pls my son of 15 and half yrs is suffering several idiopathic scoliosis condition which is more than 73 degrees. I would like to know if any form of exercise for scoliosis patients could help to strengthen his back and live a normal life without going through spine fusing surgery .
Erin Myers says
I’d suggest booking a private virtual lesson with me so we can chat about a game plan for your son. Through the contact page of spiralspine.com you can email my studio manager and she can get you set up. Spiralspine.com is going through many changes right now, and in about a week you’ll be able to go to the Scoliosis Resources page and find out what videos to watch, blogs to read, and more. Check the page in about a week and you’ll find tons of proactive information. I hope to have a virtual lesson with you soon.
I know this is a bit old but I highly recommend schroth physical therapy for anyone with scoliosis and/or kyphosis.
Emily Ulaner says
I am a runner with scoliosis, I have a 32 degree curve in my lower back and a 25 degree curve in the mid upper part of my back. It definitely bothers me and sometimes I thought of quitting running but doing a lot of stretching and working on making my back stronger has helped.
I am a competitive swimmer and my goal is to make the Olympics. Then I was diagnosed with scoliosis and it got so bad that I had to have the surgery for it and now I have rods in my back keeping my back straight. Making the Olympics is still my goal, it’s still my dream.
Erin Myers says
Natalie Coughlin has scoli. Obviously, scoliosis didn’t hold her back from swimming at the olympics. You MUST find a great myofascial therapist and Pilates instructor to work on you and cross-train you to keep your body healthy while training for the Olympics. I know Natalie’s training in CA and he’s amazing. I also happen to know she has a small Pilates studio in her home so she can do Pilates on her own when she’s not at her trainer’s studio. You’ve got to have a team to help you. Keep reaching for the stars, Eve! I can’t wait to see you on the podium. Blessings, Erin
Shabaan Gujjar says
All you have to do is to give your 100% dedication to your goal and God will give you success
Poonam dudhat says
I am the patient of scoliosis. Having 44 degree nd 54 degree angle of s shape.i know how difficult it is.in day to day life n number of problems I have facing.i also have the balancing problem while standing.so it is really a big thing nd motivation also that usain bolt won not only the n number of medals but he also he is the fastest person on the earth with the major physical issues.so salute to usain.
He really works hard so this is why he is a champion. Go Usain Bolt go.
It looks like a little scoliosis may be 15 ° so quite nothing , not comparable to a real impact scoliosis starting bad effects from 25° to more. I don’t like that kind of article because make believe that a scoliosis is not a problem, bolt scoliosis must be called “minor scoliosis” and much more minor that he have intensive exercices with a daily coach.
Erin Myers says
Even “minor” scoliosis can drastically affect someone, especially when they are one of the world’s best athletes. When your body has to work perfectly, which his has to in order to perform at the level it does, the most minor misalignment can totally throw the body off. I’ve seen many clients with “minor” scoli that complain of severe pain due to the misalignment in the body. He has done an amazing job and so have his coaches at not letting scoli slow him down.
Yeah that’s totally right, mine progressed quite quickly but even before it got bad enough for surgery it caused quite a lot of pain and balance issues when I was doing athletics and it was far from the intense training which Usain Bolt will have to do
Adam Winiarz says
Although his scoliosis may not be severe, it still greatly affects him in his running which makes his accomplishments all that more impressive. Even though he is the greatest sprinter to ever live, his scoliosis causes him to have the worst form of any sprinter at or near his level. The Proper sprinting form requires your upper body to be completely upright with no movement, but because of his scoliosis, this is not possible causing him to have a lot of movement in his upper body slowing him down and using more energy than necessary. Also, out of the blocks you are supposed to shoot out straight and he can’t causing him to run more side to side. This is also a reason why he isn’t the same caliber 400m sprinter as he is in the 100m and 200m. Although his height and build are perfect for the 400m, his form uses too much energy for him to keep strong throughout the entire race.
Erin Myers says
That was an absolutely awesome blurb, Adam. Thanks for your insight.
Dear Ed, I’m a dancer and I have scoliosis, which is qualified for surgery. (38* and 35*). But because of my back and core muscles it doesn’t seem big. I mean, it’s hard to see if I do really have back problems. So please, have some respect to Usain Bolt, who – because of his hard work – is a champion. If you can’t see his scoliosis it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have it.