Women’s Health

June is Scoliosis Awareness Month

scoliosis graphic

Facts about scoliosis

  • Scoliosis is prevalent, affecting about 3% of the population in the US.
  • It is the most common spinal deformity.
  • In the vast majority of cases, scoliosis has no identifiable cause—this is termed idiopathic scoliosis.
  • It usually starts between the ages of 10 to 15, though it is also possible to have scoliosis as an infant or to develop scoliosis as an adult.
  • Scoliosis is diagnosed both males and females.
  • Females are significantly more likely to have scoliosis curves that progress and need either bracing and/or surgery to reduce the curvature.
  • In recent years, treatment for scoliosis has made significant advances. Both bracing and surgery are more effective and less invasive than in the past.

Early diagnosis of scoliosis is important

Diagnosing scoliosis in its early stages ensures the most options for treating the curvature and slowing or stopping the progression. Children’s bones are not yet fully hardened, so non-surgical treatments like bracing may be used to prevent progression of the curvature.

In severe cases, bracing may also be useful in delaying the need for surgery until the child is older and his or her bones are more developed.

Scoliosis screenings

Many students are given the Adam’s Forward Bend Test in school, typically when they are in 5th or 6th grade, to determine whether or not they may have scoliosis. However, many schools do not do these screenings, so it is advisable to make sure the screening is done as part of a child’s annual physical exam with the pediatrician.

Scoliosis Symptoms

In the Adam’s Forward Bend Test, the student bends forward at the waist with arms hanging downward toward the floor and knees straight, while being observed by a health care professional. This bending-forward position most clearly shows any asymmetry in the spine and/or trunk. The health care professional looks for abnormal appearance in the spine, hips, and shoulders, such as:

  • Any type of hump or uneven appearance around the area of the rib cage
  • Any side-to-side asymmetry in the spine
  • Shoulders that appear to be different heights
  • One hip that sticks out more prominently than the other

A mild scoliosis curve can go unnoticed to the untrained eye. However, if the curve progresses, various signs and symptoms can become obvious.

Common Early Signs of Scoliosis:

Oftentimes scoliosis is first suspected when someone notices something slightly off and comments. Some examples could include:

  • Clothes fit awkwardly or hang unevenly. A parent, friend, or even the person with scoliosis might notice that a shirt or blouse appears uneven, which could be cause for further investigation.
  • Sideways curvature observed while in bathing suit or changing. For instance, a parent could first notice the sideways curvature in an adolescent’s back while at the pool or beach.

Even if a newly discovered asymmetry appears minor, it should be checked by a doctor because scoliosis is easier to treat when caught early.

Some of the more common symptoms present in moderate or severe scoliosis could include:

  • Changes with walking. When the spine abnormally twists and bends sideways enough, it can cause the hips to be out of alignment, which changes a person’s gait or how they walk. The extra compensating that a person does to maintain balance for the uneven hips and legs can cause the muscles to tire sooner. A person might also notice that one hand brushes against a hip while walking but the other does not.
  • Reduced range of motion. The deformity from spinal twisting can increase rigidity, which reduces the spine’s flexibility for bending.
  • Trouble breathing. If the spine rotates enough, the rib cage can twist and tighten the space available for the lungs. Bone might push against the lungs and make breathing more difficult.
  • Cardiovascular problems. Similarly, if the rib cage twists enough, reduced spacing for the heart can hamper its ability to pump blood.
  • Pain. If curvature becomes severe enough, back muscles could become more prone to painful spasms. Local inflammation may develop around the strained muscles, which can also lead to pain. It is possible for the intervertebral discs and facet joints to start to degenerate due to higher loads.
  • Lower self-esteem. This symptom is commonly overlooked or minimized by outside observers, but it can be a significant factor for people who have a noticeable spinal deformity. Especially for adolescents who want to fit in with their friends, it can be stressful and depressing to look different, have clothes fit unevenly, or wear a noticeable back brace that may be uncomfortable or limit activity.

It is possible but highly unlikely for scoliosis to ever progress to the point of causing death. Typically, a person would have access to a surgical solution before that type of deformity could set in.

What should you do if you suspect you or your child has scoliosis?

Make an appointment to have your child evaluated by a physician. If the initial physical exam shows an abnormal spinal curve, the doctor will probably order an X-ray or MRI scan to assess the degree of the curvature.

While rare, it is possible for untreated scoliosis to progress and potentially to lead to more serious complications, such as the potential for chronic pain and/or restricted activity. To prevent complications for scoliosis, early detection and treatment are essential.