What Is Scoliosis?
When you look at a normal spine from behind, it looks straight. But for someone who has scoliosis, their spine bends and looks like an “S” or “C” shape when you look at their back from behind. Some people with scoliosis look like they’re leaning to one side.
A person’s spine can curve to the right, left, or on both sides. Scoliosis can also change both the middle (thoracic) and lower (lumbar) area of the spine. The bones inside the spine (called vertebrae) can also be rotated.
For doctors to diagnose scoliosis, a person’s spine must be curved by 10 degrees or more. But most people won’t notice anything unusual if your or your child’s spine only curves by 10 degrees. Scoliosis is usually only noticeable if the spine curves more than 20 degrees. In these cases, other people may notice a shirt that hangs unevenly or a body that looks like it’s tilting over.
What Is a Mild Case of Scoliosis?
Some people have mild cases of scoliosis. If your or your child’s scoliosis is mild, this means that most doctors agree that your scoliosis doesn’t need any treatment. Still, doctors will closely monitor children who have even mild scoliosis. Doctors want to make sure that the curve in their spine doesn’t getting worse as they get older.
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What Causes Scoliosis In an Adolescent?
Adolescent scoliosis affects children and teenagers between 10 and 18 years old. In most cases, doctors don’t know why scoliosis happens in children. The same is true for adults. This is called idiopathic scoliosis or adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS). Most adolescents with scoliosis are healthy and haven’t had any health problems in the past.
Poor posture or slumping don’t cause scoliosis.
Many children will never need treatment. For some children, doctors will recommend they wear a brace to keep their spine from curving more. Other children may need surgery to make sure scoliosis doesn’t get worse, or to straighten spines that have a severe curve.
Other Causes of Scoliosis
In most cases, doctors don’t know what causes scoliosis. This is called idiopathic scoliosis. When doctors can identify what causes scoliosis, it’s usually because of these reasons:
- birth defects,
- abnormal growth,
- or diseases (like multiple sclerosis, metabolic diseases, rheumatoid disease, or neuromuscular diseases).
Scoliosis can have many symptoms. The most common symptoms include the following:
- One shoulder (or shoulder blade) is higher than the other
- The head isn’t in a straight line with the body
- One hip is higher than another or in a different position than the other
- Arms will hang on the side of the body differently when standing up straight
- One side of the back will look higher than the other when a person with scoliosis bends over
Most people with idiopathic scoliosis don’t have back pain, leg pain, or changes in their bowel and bladder habits. If you or your child have these symptoms, you should see your doctor right away.
It’s easy to confuse scoliosis symptoms with other spine conditions or deformities. Infections on injury can also cause scoliosis. Be sure to schedule an appointment with your doctor if you think you have scoliosis.
Diagnosis & Treatment
How Do Doctors Diagnose Scoliosis?
Doctors use X-rays as the main tool to diagnose scoliosis. X-rays show how many degrees a spine bends or curves. Doctors look at how many degrees the spine curves to determine if a person has scoliosis. Doctors will also do physical exams and get a patient’s entire medical history.
Doctors can also use other tests to diagnose congenital (present at birth) scoliosis, unusual curve patterns, or curves. These tests include the following:
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—These use a computer and large magnets to create detailed images of bones and organs inside the body.
- Computed tomography (CT) scan—These use a computer and X-rays to take horizontal pictures (also called slices) of the body. CT scans can show in-depth pictures of any area inside the body, including muscles, fat, bones, and organ. CT scans show more detail than X-rays.
For scoliosis to be treated successfully, it’s extremely important that a doctor diagnoses it early.
All treatments for scoliosis try to stop the spine from curving more. Doctors treating scoliosis also try to prevent deformity. Treatments may include:
- Observation and repeated exams—Doctors often observe children and adults with scoliosis over many years and give them regular, repeated exams. If your child is still growing and the curve in their spine is less than 25 degrees, your doctor will want to make sure their spine isn’t curving more.
- Wearing a brace—If the curve on your child’s spine is more than 25° to 30° on an X-ray—and if your child’s spine is still growing—your doctor may recommend a brace. Your doctor may also recommend a brace if your child or teenager is still growing and has a curve between 20° and 29° that isn’t getting better. Your doctor will look at how severe the scoliosis is to decide the type of brace and how long it should be worn.
- Surgery—Your doctor may recommend surgery if the curve on your spine is more than 45 degrees and if wearing a brace isn’t stopping your spine from curving more.
Alternative Therapies for Scoliosis: Curing Scoliosis With Exercise?
It can be stressful and overwhelming to find out you or your child has scoliosis. After someone is diagnosed, many people wonder if alternative treatments like exercise can cure scoliosis and stop the spine from curving more.
But it’s important to note that there’s no scientific or medical evidence showing that alternative therapies work. Some people with scoliosis take special vitamins, change their diets and exercise routines, go to chiropractors, or get electrical manipulation. But the medical community hasn’t found any evidence that these alternative therapies prevent a person’s spine from curving or reverse curving.
That’s why it’s important that you see a doctor for treatment if you think you or your child may have scoliosis.
Meet Our Patients
For years, Dan Owens suffered excruciating back pain. After many diagnoses, such as previously unidentified scoliosis, and failed treatments for pain management, he grew discouraged. In August 2018, an MRI revealed he had spinal stenosis (severe narrowing caused by arthritis and degenerative disk disease), which exerts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves.
Resources for Our Patients
Scoliosis: A Common Problem that Can Turn Serious
Scoliosis is common and usually isn't progressive, and, fortunately, those with the condition often can live without much trouble. For some, however, scoliosis can cause pain and even impair function if left untreated. Learn when you should visit your physician for scoliosis and ways to lessen the pain.
What to Expect When Treating Spinal Scoliosis with Surgery
Spinal scoliosis is a degenerative spinal disease that can cause extreme pain or weakness in the legs while walking. In some extreme cases it can even lead to a curvature in the spine that causes further complications. For many patients, physical therapy can help, but for others a surgery may be needed to bring relief.