Scoliosis and Spinal Deformities
Scoliosis is an abnormal sideways curvature of the spine. The scoliosis that occurs in children is typically called idiopathic scoliosis because there is no known cause. Scoliosis in adults may be caused by degeneration and arthritic conditions associated with aging, known as degenerative scoliosis, or idiopathic scoliosis that has been present since childhood.
How common is scoliosis?
About one in 100 people have some degree of scoliosis. Most of these cases are mild and do not require treatment.
Who gets scoliosis?
Scoliosis usually appears between the ages of 9 and 15, during a child’s adolescent growth spurt. Although scoliosis occurs at about the same rate for girls and boys, girls are more likely to have a severe curvature that requires some form of treatment.
Doctors do not know exactly what causes idiopathic scoliosis, the most common type of scoliosis. It can run in families, but most children with scoliosis have no family history of the disease. Less common types of scoliosis may be caused by birth defects, injuries, certain infections, tumors, or neuromuscular conditions, such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy.
How is scoliosis diagnosed?
Signs that a child may have scoliosis are often identified in a routine screening, whereas adults may visit a doctor because of pain or discomfort. Scoliosis is diagnosed through a physical examination, a review of medical history, and imaging tests.
For children, symptoms generally develop during their first growth spurt that signals the start of puberty. The main signs of scoliosis relate to physical appearance and rarely cause pain:
- One arm is longer than the other
- One shoulder blade sticks out more than the other
- One shoulder is higher than the other
- One side of the waist is higher than the other
Adults with scoliosis are more likely to experience pain, particularly in their back and neck.
Contact a medical professional if you have or your child has symptoms of a spinal deformity. Thorough evaluation by a medical professional is needed determine if you have scoliosis.
Treatment for scoliosis depends on the severity of the curvature in the spine. In mild cases, the doctor may simply observe the curvature over time to ensure it is not growing at a rate that requires treatment.
A child with scoliosis may wear a brace if his or her bones are still growing and the spinal deformity is not too severe. It can be taken off for short periods of time and usually does not interfere with the child’s routine.
Surgical treatment usually involves a procedure called a spinal fusion, in which the doctor corrects abnormal curves in the spine by connecting, or fusing, two or more individual bones of the spine. The bones are fused together using bone from another area of the patient’s skeleton, bone from a donor, or synthetic materials. Screws, rods, hooks, wires, and plates are used to stabilize and support the spine while the bones fuse together. For a child, it is preferable to delay surgery until after he or she has stopped growing.
- Date of last review: November 28, 2016
- Author: Kumar Kakarla, MD