Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine, or backbone. Instead of a straight vertical line from the neck to the buttocks, the spine has a C- or S-shape. This can result in uneven shoulders and hips.
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In most cases, the cause of scoliosis is not known. Sometimes it is related to a congenital birth defect, disease, or infection. It usually develops in childhood before puberty, though it may not be diagnosed until the teen years. Scoliosis is classified on the age at diagnosis:
Adolescent scoliosis—1-17 years old
Juvenile scoliosis—3-10 years old
Infantile scoliosis—younger than three years old
- This form may result from:
Occasionally, the spine curvature of scoliosis is due to a muscle imbalance rather than a spinal deformity.
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.
Risk factors include:
- Age: Adolescent years (after age 10)
- Family members who have had scoliosis
- Delayed puberty and menarche in girls
- Uneven shoulders
- Prominent shoulder blade or ribs
- Uneven waist
- An elevated hip
- Leaning to one side
- Chronic back pain (usually only if left untreated for several years)
More severe cases of scoliosis can lead to:
- Breathing difficulties due to pressure on the lungs and heart
- Body image issues
Scoliosis is often screened routinely in well-child visits and schools. At an office visit your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. The doctor will examine the following:
Other tests and diagnostic methods may include:
X-ray or MRI
The doctor may recommend an x-ray if you have significant spinal curves, unusual back pain, or signs of brain and spinal cord problems. Occasionally, more tests are needed. You may also have a magnetic resonance imaging x-ray (MRI).
The doctor measures the angle of the curve on x-rays. In general, curves that are greater than 20 degrees require treatment. Doctors classify curves of the spine by their location, shape, pattern, and cause. They use this information to decide how to treat the scoliosis.
Referral to a Spine Doctor
Your doctor may refer you to an orthopedic spine specialist, a doctor who has experience treating people with scoliosis.
Children with mild spinal curves generally do not need treatment. The type of treatment depends on:
- Your age
- How much more you are likely to grow
- The degree and pattern of the curve
- If you have back pain
Treatment options include:
Your doctor will probably just monitor the curve by examining you every 3-6 months if your curve is less than 20 degrees or if you are almost done growing.
The goal of bracing is to prevent curves from getting worse. Your doctor may recommend that you wear a back brace if you are still growing and your curve is more than 20 degrees. Once you stop growing, the need for more treatment will depend on the size of the curve and how it affects your appearance and function. Braces are not typically used beyond the ages of 15-16 for girls, and 17-18 for boys.
Bracing will feel uncomfortable at first. Children will need lots of support to wear the brace as prescribed, as well as encouragement to foster a positive body image.
In severe cases where the curvature is greater than 40-50 degrees, your doctor may recommend surgery to correct a curve or stop it from worsening if you are still growing. Surgery typically involves fusing the vertebrae of the spine together or the use of rods. Hospitalization can last 5-7 days and recovery can take several months. Surgical techniques utilizing stapling methods or implants, as well as other surgical techniques are also available, but some are still experimental.
American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons
Scoliosis Research Society
BC Health Guide, British Columbia Ministry of Health
Caring for Kids, The Canadian Paediatric Society
American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons website. Available at: http://www.aaos.org.
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at: http://www.niams.nih.gov/.
Scoliosis. EBSCO Dynamed website. Available at: http://dynaweb.ebscohost.com/Detail.aspx?id=116647&sid=991b341a-33b7-4504-9358-99705ac9b055@SRCSM1.
Scoliosis. Mayo Clinic website. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/scoliosis/DS00194/DSECTION=1.
Vertebral body stapling for idiopathic scoliosis. Department of Health and Aging (Australia) website. Available at: http://www.surgeons.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=ASERNIP_S_NET_S_Database&Template=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentFileID=19926.
Last reviewed May 2008 by John C. Keel, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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