Scoliosis

What is scoliosis?

Illustration of a normal spinal column
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A normal spine, when viewed from behind, appears straight. However, a spine affected by scoliosis shows evidence of a lateral, or side-to-side curvature, with the spine looking like an "S" or "C" and a rotation of the back bones (vertebrae), giving the appearance that the person is leaning to one side. According to the Scoliosis Research Society, scoliosis is defined as a curvature of the spine measuring 10 degrees or greater.

Scoliosis is a type of spinal deformity and should not be confused with poor posture.

Spinal curvature from scoliosis may occur on the right or left side of the spine, or on both sides in different sections. Both the thoracic (mid) and lumbar (lower) spine may be affected by scoliosis.

What causes scoliosis?

Illustration demonstrating  thoracic and lumbar scoliosis
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In more than 80 percent of cases, the cause of scoliosis is unknown - a condition called idiopathic scoliosis. In other cases, scoliosis may develop as a result of degeneration of the spinal disks, as seen with osteoporosis, or as a hereditary condition that tends to run in families.

The abnormal curves of the spine are classified according to their cause, including the following:

  • nonstructural scoliosis (Also called functional scoliosis.)
    In this condition, a structurally normal spine appears curved due to one or more underlying conditions (i.e., difference in leg length, an inflammatory condition, etc.). This type of scoliosis is generally temporary and is often relieved when the underlying condition is treated.
  • structural scoliosis
    The possible causes of structural scoliosis are numerous, including the following:
    • of unknown origin (idiopathic structural scoliosis)
    • disease (i.e., neuromuscular, metabolic, connective tissue, or rheumatoid disease)
    • birth defect
    • injury
    • infection
    • abnormal growth or tumor

What are the symptoms of scoliosis?

The following are the most common symptoms of scoliosis. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • difference in shoulder height
  • the head is not centered with the rest of the body
  • difference in hip height or position
  • difference in shoulder blade height or position
  • when standing straight, difference in the way the arms hang beside the body
  • when bending forward, the sides of the back appear different in height

Back pain, leg pain, and changes in bowel and bladder habits are not commonly associated with idiopathic scoliosis. A person experiencing these types of symptoms requires further medical evaluation by a physician.

The symptoms of scoliosis may resemble other spinal conditions or deformities, or may be a result of an injury or infection. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How is scoliosis diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, x-rays (a diagnostic test which uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film) are the primary diagnostic tool for scoliosis. In establishing a diagnosis of scoliosis, the physician measures the degree of spinal curvature on the x-ray.

The following other diagnostic procedures may be performed for nonidiopathic curvatures, atypical curve patterns, or congenital scoliosis:

  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - a diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.
  • computed tomography scan (Also called a CT or CAT scan.) - a diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of x-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images (often called slices), both horizontally and vertically, of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general x-rays.

Early detection of scoliosis is most important for successful treatment.

Treatment of scoliosis:

Specific treatment of scoliosis will be determined by your physician based on:

  • your age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the condition
  • your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the condition
  • your opinion or preference

The goal of treatment is to stop the progression of the curve and prevent deformity. Treatment may include:

  • observation and repeated examinations
    Observation and repeated examinations may be necessary to determine if the spine is continuing to curve, and is used when a person has a curve less than 25 degrees and is still growing.
  • bracing
    Bracing may be used when the curve measures more than 25 to 30 degrees on an x-ray, but skeletal growth remains. It may also be necessary if a person is growing and has a curve between 20 and 29 degrees that is not improving. The type of brace and the amount of time spent in the brace will depend on the severity of the condition.
  • surgery
    Surgery may be recommended when the curve measures 45 degrees or more on an x-ray and bracing is not successful in slowing down the progression of the curve when a person is still growing. 

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, there is no scientific evidence to show that other methods for treating scoliosis (i.e., chiropractic manipulation, electrical stimulation, nutritional supplementation, exercise) prevent the progression of the disease.

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