Scoliosis & Spine

Scoliosis Patient Education

What Is Scoliosis?

Scoliosis is not a disease. It's an abnormal curvature of the spine or backbone. In addition to curving, the spine rotates, making the ribs look uneven. This may cause a “bump” on the back. Other signs include a shoulder or hip that looks higher than the other, or the chest may appear uneven. Scoliosis is not contagious and is usually a painless condition.

Why Does Scoliosis Happen?

Sometimes the cause of scoliosis is known. For example, a child may be born with a misshapen vertebra, one of the building blocks of the spine. This condition is called congenital scoliosis. A curve may also develop from an underlying neurological disorder (neuromuscular scoliosis). Most of the time, however, the cause is unknown, or idiopathic. It's not caused by slouching, bad posture, sleeping position, lack of calcium or carrying heavy books, backpacks or purses. No one did anything wrong to cause scoliosis, and it can't be prevented.

Who Has Scoliosis?

Scoliosis usually occurs in early adolescence, becoming more noticeable during a growth spurt. Approximately 0.5 percent of young people develop scoliosis that requires treatment. Girls are much more likely than boys to develop scoliosis that needs treatment. Scoliosis is often found in several family members throughout several generations.

How Is Scoliosis Found?

Finding scoliosis is easy when the back is examined closely, but it can be missed if you're not looking for it. Sometimes clothes don't hang properly. For example, one pant leg may be longer, or a skirt hem doesn't look level. A shoulder blade may look higher and be seen through clothes or when wearing a swimsuit. Parents or friends might notice the curve, but most curves are found through a school-screening program or by a pediatrician. A trained examiner can detect even a slight curve when a child bends over to touch his or her toes. A referral is often made to an orthopedic doctor if a curve is suspected. Scoliosis is diagnosed by an X-ray of the spine and is measured in degrees. If the curve measures more than 10 degrees, it's considered to be scoliosis.

What Are the Types of Scoliosis Curves?

Curves occur in the spine between the neck and the pelvis and are named based on their location. The most common type is in the upper back (thoracic), and tends to curve to the right. Other curves are in the lower (lumbar) spine. Many children have both types of curves.

How Are Scoliosis Curves Treated?

Scoliosis treatment depends on the degree of the curve, when it's detected and how much growing the child has left. Smaller curves may not require treatment other than periodic checks by your doctor.

If a curve is greater than 20 degrees and the child is still growing, your doctor might recommend wearing a brace. Scoliosis bracing won't correct a curve, but it will help prevent it from progressing during growth spurts. The brace is only worn while the child is growing and must be worn as prescribed by the doctor in order to be effective.

If a curve is advanced, your doctor may suggest scoliosis surgery to correct the scoliosis. Allowing a large curve to progress could interfere with heart and lung function in later years and can result in pain as an adult. The most common type of operation is called posterior spinal instrumentation and fusion. This procedure prevents the curve from progressing and helps correct the spinal curvature.

Scoliosis is a treatable condition, and it shouldn't be allowed to become a disabling one. When treated, it shouldn't affect your ability to lead a normal life.