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 7 years of a child’s life. Common causes, when they can be pinpointed, are:
- birth defects
- neurological abnormalities
- genetic conditions
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:
- Infant: 0 to 3 years
- Juvenile: 4 to 10 years
- Adolescent: 11 to 18 years
- Adult: 18+ years
Of these, adolescent idiopathic scoliosis is the most common, according to the AANS.
When researchers know the cause of different types of scoliosis, they include:
- congenital, in which spinal deformities are apparent at birth
- neurological, when nerve abnormalities affect muscles in the spine
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:
- one shoulder blade that’s higher than the other
- one shoulder blade that sticks out more than the other
- uneven hips
- a rotating spine
- problems breathing because of reduced area in the chest for lungs to expand
- back pain
The cause of scoliosis often can’t be determined. Common causes that doctors may identify include:
- cerebral palsy, a group of nervous system disorders that affect movement, learning, hearing, seeing, and thinking
- muscular dystrophy, a group of genetic disorders that result in muscle weakness
- birth defects that affect an infant’s spinal bones, such as spina bifida
- spinal injuries or infections
People with a family history of scoliosis are more likely to develop the condition. People with a vagina are more likely to have a more severe form of scoliosis than those with a penis.
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:
- X-ray: During this test, small amounts of radiation are used to create a picture of your spine.
- MRI scan: This test uses radio and magnetic waves to get a detailed picture of bones and the tissue surrounding them.
- CT scan: During this test, X-rays are taken at a variety of angles to get a 3-D picture of the body.
- Bone scan: This test detects a radioactive solution injected into your blood that concentrates in areas of increased circulation, highlighting spinal abnormalities.
Treatment depends on numerous factors — the degree of spine curvature being a major one. Your doctor will also take into consideration:
- your age
- whether you’re likely to continue growing
- the amount and type of curvature
- the type of the scoliosis
The primary treatment options are bracing and surgery.
According to the AANS, a person with scoliosis may need to use a brace if they’re still growing and the curvature is more than 25 to 40 degrees.
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 16 to 23 hours a day until they stop growing. A brace’s effectiveness increases with the number of hours they wear it per day.
Doctors usually recommend that children wear their braces until they reach adolescence and are no longer growing.
There are two main types of braces:
- Underarm: Made of plastic and fitting close to the body, this brace is virtually invisible. It’s used to treat lower spine curves and fits around the lower part of the body.
- Milwaukee: This brace starts at the neck and covers the entire torso, with the exception of the legs and arms. It’s used for curves that the underarm brace can’t address.
Surgery is usually reserved for people with curves greater than 40 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:
- excessive bleeding
- failure to heal
- nerve damage
Certain therapies can aid in managing scoliosis pain, though they won’t help to correct the curvature itself.
Some techniques need more research but may be recommended by your doctor, such as hydrotherapy, massage, electrical stimulation, and back braces.
These methods are most likely to aid in reducing pain and discomfort:
Exercise and stretching for scoliosis pain symptoms can’t fix the underlying issue, but it’s important for general wellness and can help keep you flexible.
Ask your healthcare provider for recommendations for exercise and stretches to help keep your muscles strong and supportive.
Pain medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) can help to reduce pain. Talk to your doctor about options for pain and inflammation reduction.
Note that this kind of treatment isn’t a cure for the curvature of scoliosis. Look for a chiropractor who specializes in scoliosis to avoid making the condition worse.
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 (NSF) is a good starting point for finding resources.