What is scoliosis?

Scoliosis is a spine condition that occurs when the spine curves or twists to the side. This can pull the ribcage out of position and put strain on the muscles of the back, causing pain and discomfort.

Scoliosis isn’t a rare condition. About 3 to 4 out of 1,000 children will develop scoliosis that needs treatment from a specialist.

Although it mainly appears in children, scoliosis can develop at any time. People who have this condition may

  • be born with it (congenital)
  • develop it as a young child (early onset)
  • develop it as an older child or teenager (adolescent idiopathic)
  • develop it as an adult (degenerative or de novo)

Symptoms of scoliosis

During the early stages of scoliosis, there aren’t many symptoms.

This is particularly true in children. Scoliosis can remain undetected until children reach the rapid growth phase in adolescence.

Conversely, it can be difficult to identify in adults, because it’s easy to misinterpret as back pain. This is especially true if you have a milder form of the condition.

Small clues can point toward an abnormal curve in your spine, such as ill-fitting clothes. You may even notice abnormal posture, such as uneven hips, or a shoulder blade that is higher than the other.

Other signs of scoliosis include:

  • a head that isn’t centered on the body
  • hips that sit at an angle
  • a spine that is visibly not straight

Scoliosis is more likely to cause pain in adults. Scoliosis can result in:

Call your doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • You have back pain that doesn’t improve after using home treatments for a week.
  • Your pain interferes with your day-to-day activities.
  • The pain feels as if it’s shooting down your legs.

These symptoms are caused by advanced scoliosis.

What causes scoliosis pain?

Typically, the pain you experience with adult onset scoliosis is the result of pressure on your spinal disks. But scoliosis can cause pain for other reasons.

The curvature of the spine can stretch, irritate, or squish nerves. It can also strain joints, causing them to become worn or inflamed.

Scoliosis also affects your posture, which leads to muscles tightening or becoming tired, causing pain.

In children, the spinal curve can increase without treatment. This is because the brain doesn’t realize that the body’s posture is no longer aligned. Because the child’s brain won’t instruct the muscles to repair the curve, the spine continues its abnormal growth.

How is scoliosis diagnosed?

Scoliosis is a complex disorder that needs to be diagnosed by a doctor. Prompt treatment can prevent the curvature of your spine from getting worse.

At your appointment, your doctor will ask you questions about the pain you’re feeling and any other symptoms you’ve noticed.

Your doctor will also ask about your personal medical history. They will also want to know if you have any family history of scoliosis.

Then they will conduct a physical examination. This will include a simple test where you bend forward, arms loose with palms touching. While you’re in this position, the doctor examines your back and ribs to see if they’re uneven.

If your doctor notices a significant spinal curve, they may order an X-ray. This will allow them to precisely measure how curved your spine is. They may also use a scoliometer to see if your spine has rotated.

How is scoliosis pain treated?

The best way to treat pain caused by scoliosis is to treat the scoliosis. Depending on the type of pain, there are various pain treatments available to you.

Complementary therapies

Options in this category include:

  • hydrotherapy and massage
  • exercise that strengthens your stomach and back muscles, which can also help relieve back pain, such as Pilates, yoga, swimming, and stretching
  • certain types of braces to support the spine

Medication

Over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) may help relieve pain. Talk to your doctor if these medications don’t work. They may prescribe stronger pain medication or refer you to a pain clinic.

Some antidepressants can also be used to relieve pain because they have a direct effect on pain in addition to mood.

Counselling

Your doctor may refer you to a counsellor. Counselling may be helpful for chronic pain, especially when medical treatments aren’t managing pain well.

One type of counselling is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT won’t change the amount of pain you feel, but it can help you find ways to cope with it.

A CBT counsellor will talk to you about how you manage your pain. The counsellor can also help you to develop techniques for dealing with pain.

Spinal injections

Injecting steroids into your nerves and spinal joints can help ease pain. However, injections don’t have a long-term benefit. They can be used to combat acute pain or as one part of a pain management program.

Spinal cord stimulation

Spinal cord stimulation may be helpful for people who are experiencing pain caused by damaged nerves. In this treatment, electrical wires are placed along the spinal cord. Those wires are connected to a small stimulator box that can be implanted under the skin and then controlled through a handheld remote control.

What is the outlook for scoliosis pain?

Pain caused by scoliosis is more likely to go away if scoliosis is diagnosed early and treated promptly. Severe spine curvature can cause nerve, muscle, and tissue damage that may be permanent. Pain caused by permanent tissue damage may be long term, and treatment many not be able to fully get rid of your pain.

It may take some time, but by working with your medical team, you can develop a treatment plan that can manage most of your pain.