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Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine. The normal shape of a person’s spine includes a curve at the top of the shoulder and a curve at the lower back. If your spine is curved from side to side or in an "S" or "C" shape, you might have scoliosis.
According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), about 80 percent of scoliosis cases have no identifiable cause. The condition is often diagnosed during the first seven years of a child’s life. Common causes, when they can be pinpointed, are:
The largest category of scoliosis is idiopathic scoliosis, a term used to refer to cases that have no definite cause. Idiopathic scoliosis is broken down by age group:
Of these, adolescent idiopathic scoliosis is the most common, according to the AANS.
Doctors identify a cause for an estimated 20 percent of scoliosis cases. These consist of different types of scoliosis, including:
Scoliosis can also be categorized as either structural or nonstructural. In structural scoliosis, the spine’s curve is caused by a disease, injury, or birth defect, and is permanent. Nonstructural scoliosis describes temporary curves that can be fixed.
Symptoms vary depending on the degree of scoliosis. Common symptoms associated with scoliosis include:
The cause of scoliosis often can’t be determined. Common causes that doctors may identify include:
People with a family history of scoliosis are more likely to develop the condition. Girls are more likely to have a more severe form of scoliosis than boys.
A physical exam of your spine is the first step your doctor takes to see if you have scoliosis. Your doctor may also order some imaging tests to get a closer look at your spine.
Your doctor will observe your back while you stand with your arms at your sides. They’ll check for spine curvature and whether your shoulders and waist area are symmetrical. Next, your doctor will ask you to bend forward, looking for any curvature in your upper and lower back.
Imaging tests your doctor may order to look for scoliosis include:
Treatment depends on numerous factors, the degree of spine curvature being a major one. Your doctor will also take into consideration:
The primary treatment options are bracing and surgery.
According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, a person with scoliosis may need to use a brace if:
Braces won’t straighten the spine, but they can prevent the curvature from increasing. This method of treatment is more effective for cases that are detected early.
Those requiring a brace need to wear it 24 hours a day for maximum effectiveness. As an exception, children may remove their braces to participate in exercise and sports activities.
Doctors usually recommend that children wear their braces until they reach adolescence and are no longer growing.
There are two main types of braces:
Surgery is usually reserved for people with curves greater than 45 or 50 degrees. However, talk to your doctor about this option if you’ve been diagnosed with scoliosis and feel the curvature is interrupting your daily life or causing you discomfort.
Spinal fusion is the standard scoliosis surgery. In this procedure, the doctor fuses your vertebrae together using a bone graft, rods, and screws. The bone graft consists of bone or a material like it. The rods keep your spine in a straight position, and the screws hold them in place. Eventually, the bone graft and vertebrae fuse into a single bone. Rods can be adjusted in children as they grow.
Some of the risks of spinal fusion surgery include:
The long-term outlook for scoliosis depends on how severe the curvature is. For mild to moderate cases, the condition won’t interfere with everyday activities and functions. Individuals with severe forms of scoliosis may have physical limitations.
Living with scoliosis can be difficult. If you’re looking for help managing your scoliosis, you may want to seek out a support group. Support groups allow you to meet others who are experiencing the same things, and you can find encouragement and advice about dealing with the condition on a daily basis.
The National Scoliosis Foundation is a good starting point for finding resources.
Written by: Shannon Johnson
Medically reviewed on: Nov 14, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine
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