Idiopathic conditions develop with no obvious cause. This can happen with scoliosis, but not everything about idiopathic cases is a mystery.
Some types of scoliosis develop because of congenital, developmental, or degenerative changes, but there’s a whole category of scoliosis with no obvious cause. These types of scoliosis are called “idiopathic” and may seem to appear spontaneously.
This article will explore what it’s like to have idiopathic scoliosis, what symptoms to expect, and how this difficulty may develop. It will also cover some of the options for treating and living with idiopathic scoliosis.
Idiopathic scoliosis is a type of scoliosis that develops with no clear or obvious cause.
Adolescent idiopathic scoliosis is the most common type of scoliosis overall, affecting roughly 4 out of every 100 teens.
It usually appears somewhere between the ages of 10 and 18 years, when the body is going through rapid growth spurts.
Congenital and degenerative scoliosis are two other types of scoliosis.
With varieties of scoliosis that aren’t idiopathic, the condition usually develops because of an issue with the initial formation of your bones and spine or because of damage that happens gradually throughout your lifetime.
Idiopathic scoliosis isn’t diagnosed at birth like congenital forms, and it appears long before degenerative changes would develop.
The progression of idiopathic scoliosis usually slows down as you approach bone maturity, while other types of scoliosis might continue to get worse with time.
While the phrase “idiopathic scoliosis” implies that there’s no known cause for these spinal changes, this sentiment isn’t entirely true. Idiopathic scoliosis doesn’t have the clear causes or triggering events of other types of scoliosis, but there are some common threads that hint at a few possible causes.
Roughly one-third of all people who develop idiopathic scoliosis have some family history of scoliosis.
Family members may have a different type of scoliosis, but this association still suggests a possible genetic link between idiopathic and other types of scoliosis.
Research is underway to examine these family patterns, but no clear genetic cause has been identified yet for idiopathic scoliosis.
Other factors that are thought to play a role in idiopathic scoliosis include:
- hormonal changes
- muscle development
- rapid bone growth
- asymmetrical skeletal development
Mild curvature is more common in idiopathic scoliosis than in other forms of scoliosis. Slight curves might go unnoticed for some time but become more pronounced during periods of rapid growth.
Some other noticeable symptoms, other than an obvious curve of the spine, include features such as:
- uneven hips
- uneven shoulders
- posture changes
- a protruding shoulder blade
- prominent appearance of ribs
As obvious as you think these symptoms may be, teens can be self-conscious of the changes their bodies go through and avoid tight-fitting clothes. As a result, you may not notice subtle changes until they become more pronounced or until a healthcare team sees them during a routine exam.
If a doctor believes you’re developing idiopathic or other types of scoliosis, they may start a deeper investigation with an exam called “Adam’s Forward Bend Test.”
This test is much like it sounds and only requires a bend forward at the waist with feet together and knees straight. The doctor will observe the back, and the symmetry of the hips, shoulders, and ribs, looking for unusual alignment.
If your hips, shoulders, or other areas of the body or spine suggest a curve, the doctor may perform additional tests such as X-rays and measurements to estimate how much curvature your spine has.
Some curvature is normal, but a diagnosis of scoliosis will be made if the degree of your spinal curve is more than 10 degrees.
Not all cases of idiopathic scoliosis require treatment. A diagnosis may be made for a curve of 10 degrees or more, but treatment isn’t always needed unless the curvature measures 25 degrees or more.
If your curvature is 20 degrees or less, a doctor may choose to observe your condition over time. X-rays and measurements may be taken every few months. If your curvature is progressing or exceeds 25 degrees, treatments such as bracing may be offered.
Braces used to treat scoliosis are designed to stabilize and retrain the spine. When curves exceed 40 degrees, scoliosis is considered severe, and surgical correction might be recommended.
Spinal fusion is the surgery that’s usually used to correct idiopathic scoliosis, and it uses rods and grafted bone fragment to realign and secure the spine. How many sections of the spine, or vertebrae, that are fused together will depend on how much of the spine is curving abnormally.
The case for a brace
Bracing is a slow-moving treatment for idiopathic scoliosis, but it’s effective. One study found that 75% of people who wore braces to correct scoliosis never progressed to the point in which surgery was required.
Exercises and physical therapy aren’t usually used as a treatment for idiopathic scoliosis, but new attention is being paid to the value of different stretches and exercises — especially in early or mild cases in which observation is the only real treatment offered before bracing or surgery.
There are many different types of active and passive exercises that can help improve your posture, strength, mobility, and comfort with early or mild idiopathic scoliosis.
Stretching, bracing, using alignment devices, and revisiting how you do daily tasks, such as sitting or walking, can all be a part of your physical therapy plan. Specific exercises may include:
- breathing exercises to expand your lungs
- active relaxation
- myofascial release
- elastic band training
- stabilization and balance exercises
Taking care of your overall health and staying active can help you promote good spinal alignment, but if your condition is diagnosed as idiopathic scoliosis, you may want to seek the help of a physical therapist or exercise physiologist to help you find the best exercises for your specific health and amount of curvature.
Idiopathic scoliosis is a type of spinal curvature that doesn’t seem to be caused by congenital development difficulties or degenerative changes over time. In many cases of idiopathic scoliosis, there’s a family history of scoliosis, but an exact genetic cause still hasn’t been identified.
If your scoliosis is mild, a doctor will usually observe the progression of your curvature over time and stick with conservative treatments such as physical therapy and bracing. More severe cases may require surgery to correct the curvature.