Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine. It usually begins in childhood or the early teen years. Here’s what you need to know about this condition.
What Is Scoliosis?
Scoliosis is a sideways curving of the spine. The result is that the spine takes on an abnormal “C” or “S” shape. The curve can be mild or pronounced.
According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, scoliosis affects 2% to 3% of the population. It can develop in early childhood or even infancy, but most cases of scoliosis begin in teenagers. Scoliosis occurs equally in boys and girls but is often more severe in girls.
Scoliosis can also develop later in life from wear and tear on the spine caused by aging.
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What Causes Scoliosis?
About 80% of the time, there’s no known cause for scoliosis. Sometimes it’s caused by a nervous system problem like cerebral palsy. Some older adults develop scoliosis as a result of arthritis or osteoporosis.
Scoliosis can run in families and often gets worse after a growth spurt.
Contrary to popular belief, poor posture, lack of exercise, and heavy backpacks do not cause scoliosis.
Types of Scoliosis
There are different types of scoliosis.
- Idiopathic scoliosis. The most common type of scoliosis, idiopathic, means that the cause is unknown. It appears in childhood or early teenage years.
- Congenital scoliosis. Present at birth, congenital scoliosis is when a baby’s ribs or spine don’t form right.
- Neuromuscular scoliosis. A nervous system problem like cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, or spina bifida causes neuromuscular scoliosis.
- Adult degenerative scoliosis. Caused by degeneration of spinal discs due to aging, this type of scoliosis appears in adulthood, usually in old age.
Symptoms of scoliosis can be mild to severe. They include:
- A visibly curved spine.
- Leaning to one side.
- One shoulder blade or hip sticking out.
- Ribs are sticking out on one side.
- Lower back pain that extends through the legs.
- Uneven hips, shoulders, or pelvis.
- Shoulder pain.
- Clothes not fitting well.
Your child’s doctor will perform a physical exam to diagnose scoliosis. Some middle schools do routine screening exams for scoliosis. They will ask your child to bend over to make the spine easier to see.
If the doctor suspects scoliosis from looking at the spine, they will order x-rays, MRI, or CT scans.
Treatment for scoliosis depends on how severe the curvature is and whether your doctor thinks it will worsen with time. Treatment also depends on age since scoliosis tends to stay the same after you stop growing.
Doctors may treat scoliosis with the following methods.
If the spinal curvature is mild, your child may not need treatment. The doctor may want to see them every six months during their teen years to check if scoliosis worsens. If symptoms worsen, they may recommend treatment.
When they become adults, their doctor may want to take x-rays every five years.
Your child’s doctor may recommend a back brace for scoliosis. Braces work best in children over ten but who haven’t stopped growing. When used correctly, back braces can stop curve progression in most children.
There are several types of braces. The doctor will need to check the brace often. Your child may need to wear it anywhere from a few hours to most of the day.
The doctor may suggest the following:
- Over-the-counter pain relievers.
- Exercises that strengthen the abdominal and back muscles and improve flexibility.
- Nerve block injections for relief of leg or other pain.
Your child may need surgery if the curvature is severe or rapidly worsening. The goal is to stop the curve from worsening while the teen marches into adulthood to ensure the least curved spine.
Surgery for scoliosis involves spinal fusion and the insertion of steel rods to help support the fused backbone.
In adults, doctors usually recommend surgery if the spinal curve is greater than 50 degrees. Often, only people who don’t respond to other treatments need surgery.
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