Scoliosis is a curving of the spine. The spine curves away from the middle or sideways. Normally, the spine is straight when viewed from the back.
Spinal curvature; Kyphoscoliosis
There are three general causes of scoliosis:
- Congenital (present at birth) scoliosis is due to a problem with the formation of the spine bones (vertebrae) or fused ribs during development in the womb or early in life.
- Neuromuscular scoliosis is caused by problems such as poor muscle control or muscle weakness, or paralysis due to diseases such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, and polio.
- Idiopathic scoliosis is scoliosis of unknown cause. Idiopathic scoliosis in adolescents is the most common type.
Some people may be prone to curving of the spine. Most cases occur in girls. Curves generally worsen during growth spurts. Scoliosis in infants and young children are less common, and commonly affect boys and girls equally.
Most children do not have symptoms. However, symptoms can include:
- Backache or low-back pain
- Shoulders or hips appear uneven
- Spine curves abnormally to the side (laterally)
There may be fatigue in the spine after prolonged sitting or standing. Pain will become persistent if there is irritation to the soft tissue and wear and tear of the spine bones.
Note: Kyphoscoliosis also involves abnormal front to back curvature, with a "rounded back" appearance. See: Kyphosis
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask you to bend forward so your spine is more visible. A doctor may suspect scoliosis if one shoulder appears to be higher than the other, or the pelvis appears to be tilted. Untrained observers often do not notice the curving in the earlier stages.
Spine x-rays will be done. The amount of curving seen during a physical exam may be less the actual curve seen on an x-ray, so x-rays are important.
Other tests may include:
- Scoliometer screening (a device measures the curvature of the spine)
- MRI (if the doctor notices nerve changes or something unusual in the x-ray)
Treatment depends on the cause of the scoliosis, the size and location of the curve, and how much more growing the patient is expected to do. Most cases of adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (less than 20 degrees) require no treatment, but should be checked often, about every 6 months.
As curves get worse (above 25 to 30 degrees in a child who is still growing), bracing is usually recommended to help slow the progression of the curve. There are many different kinds of braces used. The Boston Brace, Wilmington Brace, Milwaukee Brace, and Charleston Brace are named for the centers where they were developed.
- Each brace looks different. There are different ways of using each type properly. The selection of a brace and the manner in which it is used depends on many factors, including the specific characteristics of the curve. The exact brace will be decided on by the patient and health care provider.
- A back brace helps prevent further curving. The brace can be adjusted with growth. Bracing does not work in congenital or neuromuscular scoliosis, and is less effective in infantile and juvenile idiopathic scoliosis.
The choice of when to have surgery will vary. After the bones of the skeleton stop growing, the curve should not get much worse. Because of this, the surgeon may want to wait until your child’s bones stop growing. But your child may need surgery before this if the curve in their spine is severe or is getting worse quickly. Curves of 40 degrees or greater usually require surgery.
Surgery involves correcting the curve (although not all the way) and fusing the bones in the curve together. The bones are held in place with one or two metal rods held down with hooks and screws until the bone heals together. Sometimes surgery is done through a cut in the back, on the abdomen, or beneath the ribs. A brace may be required to stabilize the spine after surgery.
The limitations imposed by the treatments are often emotionally difficult and may threaten self-image, especially of teenagers. Emotional support is important.
Physical therapists and orthotists (orthopedic appliance specialists) can help explain the treatments and make sure the brace fits comfortably.
See: Scoliosis - support group
The outcome depends on the cause, location, and severity of the curve. The greater the curve, the greater the chance the curve will get worse after growth has stopped.
The greater the initial curve of the spine, the greater the chance the scoliosis will get worse after growth is complete. Severe scoliosis (curves in the spine greater than 60 degrees) can cause breathing problems.
Mild cases treated with bracing alone do very well. People with these kinds of conditions tend not to have long-term problems, except an increased rate of low back pain when they get older. People with surgically corrected idiopathic scoliosis can do very well and can lead active, healthy lives.
Patients with neuromuscular scoliosis have another serious disorder (like cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy) so their goals are much different. Often the goal of surgery is simply to allow a child to be able to sit upright in a wheelchair.
Babies with congenital scoliosis have a wide variety of underlying birth defects. Management of this disease is difficult and often requires many surgeries.
- Emotional problems or lowered self-esteem may occur as a result of the condition or its treatment (specifically, wearing a brace)
- Failure of the bone to join together (very rare in idiopathic scoliosis)
- Low back arthritis and pain as an adult
- Respiratory problems from severe curve
- Spinal cord or nerve damage from surgery or severe, uncorrected curve
- Spine infection after surgery
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you suspect your child may have scoliosis.
Routine scoliosis screening is now done in middle and junior high schools. Because of screening, many cases that would have previously gone undetected until they were more advanced, have been diagnosed at an earlier stage.
Hedequist DJ. Surgical treatment of congenital scoliosis. Orthop Clin North Am. 2007;38(4):497-509, vi.
Lonner, B. S. Emerging minimally invasive technologies for the management of scoliosis. Orthop Clin North Am. 2007;38(3): 431-440.
David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.., and Dennis Ogiela, MD, Orthopedic Surgeon, Danbury Hospital, Danbury, CT. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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