Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine, or backbone. Instead of a straight vertical line from the neck to the buttocks, the spine has a C- or S-shape.
Types of scoliosis include:
- Structural—curvature with spinal deformity:
- Functional—curvature without spinal deformity
Scoliosis may also be described as infantile, juvenile, or adolescent based on the child's age at onset.
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The different types of scoliosis have different causes.
Structural scoliosis—classified by the cause of the vertebral body defect:
- Congenital—defect occurs during fetal development
- Syndromic—defect occurs as a result of an underlying health condition that affects the nerves, muscles, or bones in the back and spine
- Idiopathic—defect occurs without a specific cause, but is likely due to a combination of multiple genetic factors
Functional scoliosis may be caused by:
- Muscle imbalances
- Differing leg lengths
- Conditions that cause muscles to remain tense and spasm
In some cases, scoliosis may be caused by damage to the vertebral body from:
Factors that may increase your child's risk of developing syndromic scoliosis include having conditions that affect muscles and nerves, such as muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy.
Idiopathic scoliosis is more common during the rapid growth phase of adolescence. Family history of scoliosis may also increase your child's chance of developing scoliosis.
Girls are more likely to have more severe curves. Scoliosis severity may also be influenced by:
- Delayed puberty in boys and girls
- Delayed first period in girls
In most cases, scoliosis doesn't have symptoms that can be felt. It is generally detected during a screening test, but may be noticed by the child or another person.
Scoliosis may may cause:
- Uneven shoulders
- Prominent shoulder blade or ribs
- Uneven waist
- An elevated hip
- Leaning to one side
- Chronic back pain—rare in teens, but more common in adults
More severe cases of scoliosis can lead to:
- Body image issues
- Breathing difficulties due to pressure on the lungs and heart from a compressed rib cage
- Rarely, cor pulmonale—right-sided heart failure caused by high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs
The doctor will ask about your child's symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Scoliosis can be diagnosed on examination of the back and spine. The exam may include:
- Assessing posture and spinal curvature in the upright position
- Adam's forward bend test to:
- Look at spinal curvature
- Detect imbalances in the rib cage
- Look for other abnormalities along the back
- Pattern of movement while walking
- Checking the skin to look for abnormal lesions
- Scoliometer—a measurement device used to assess the curvature and rotation of the spine
X-rays are usually done to:
- Check the severity of scoliosis by measuring the Cobb angle
- Detect vertebral or structural abnormalities
- Assess level and pace of bone development.
Your child's doctor may recommend other tests to see if the scoliosis is caused by underlying health condition.
Functional scoliosis is reversible with treatment of the underlying condition.
Children with structural types of scoliosis will be referred to a spinal specialist if treatment is needed.
Scoliosis treatment depends on many factors. These include:
- Severity of the curve
- Child's age
- Child's stage of growth
- If back pain is involved, or other if your child has other symptoms
In general, children with a mild curve are treated with observation. This means your child will have regular follow-up exams and sometimes x-rays to see if the curve worsens. Frequency of follow-up appointments depends on age, stage of growth, and the severity of the curve.
Other treatment methods include:
The goal of bracing is to prevent curves from getting worse. Your doctor may recommend that you wear a
brace if you are still growing and your curve is more than 20º-25°. Once you stop growing, the need for more treatment will depend on the size of the curve and how it affects your appearance and function.
Bracing may not be helpful in girls who have had their period for more than a year, in children who have attained full growth, or are within one year of full pelvic bone growth.
Bracing will feel uncomfortable at first. Children will need lots of support to wear the brace as prescribed, as well as encouragement to foster a positive body image.
In severe cases where the curvature is greater than 40°-50°, your doctor may recommend surgery to lessen the curve or stop it from worsening if you are still growing. Surgery typically involves fusing the vertebrae of the spine together or the use of internal rods to decrease the curvature. Hospitalization can last 5-7 days. Recovery can take several months. Surgical techniques using stapling methods or implants, as well as other surgical techniques, are also available, but some are still experimental.
There are no guidelines for preventing scoliosis because the cause is usually unknown.
Some schools have
scoliosis screening programs
to detect scoliosis, usually starting in the fifth or sixth grade. If scoliosis is detected in school, you will be advised to follow-up with your doctor.
Altaf F, Gibson A, et al. Adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. BMJ. 2013;346:f2508.
Idiopathic scoliosis in children and adolescents. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons Ortho Info website. Available at:
http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00353. Updated March 2010. Accessed November 20, 2013.
Questions and answers about scoliosis in children and adolescents. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at:
http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Scoliosis/default.asp. Updated July 2013. Accessed November 20, 2013.
Scoliosis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us. Updated October 29, 2013. Accessed November 20, 2013.
What is scoliosis? Fast Facts: An Easy-to-Read Series of Publications for the Public. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at:
http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Scoliosis/scoliosis_ff.asp. Updated March 2009. Accessed November 20, 2013.
Last reviewed November 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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