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Scoliosis of the Spine: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatments

Facts and Information About Scoliosis

  • Scoliosis is a common condition, found in 2-3 % of the population, or about 6-9 million people in the United States.
  • Scoliosis appears in 1-2 % of children or adolescents and more than 50% of people over 60.
  • Girls and women are more likely to develop scoliosis, especially if a parent also has this condition.
  • Most cases of scoliosis are mild and are corrected with simple treatments, like wearing a back brace.

Why Scoliosis Appears

People may have different causes for their scoliosis. For example, scoliosis may be something that a person is born with or it may be caused by an illness.

There are three main types of scoliosis:

  • Congenital Scoliosis is a condition that some infants are born with. Infants with this type of scoliosis have an abnormal spine, even while in the womb. The backbones (vertebrae) form incorrectly, causing the spine to press on the lungs and heart, causing breathing difficulties and infections.
  • Neuromuscular Scoliosis starts when a persons nerves and muscles do not function normally. It is seen in children with cerebral palsy or people with spinal cord injuries. Inherited neuromuscular disorders like muscular dystrophy, osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bones), and Marfan syndrome may also cause it.
  • Idiopathic Scoliosis describes any case of scoliosis where the cause is unknown. It is the most common type of scoliosis, usually detected between the ages of 10-15. At first, there may be no symptoms. However, these persons may start to have back pain as older adults due to aging of the spinal discs and joints.

Some less common causes of scoliosis include:

  • Physical trauma
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Bone collapse from osteoporosis

Symptoms of Scoliosis

Some common symptoms and signs of scoliosis include:

  • Larger muscles on one side of the back
  • Uneven hips
  • Different leg lengths
  • A rib or shoulder blade that juts out
  • Leg pain, numbness, or weakness (with pressure on the nerves in the lower spine)
  • Loss of balance
  • Difficulty breathing in severe cases (mostly children)

A Diagnosis for Scoliosis

Doctors (usually a family physician or pediatrician) diagnose scoliosis in children after taking a detailed medical history and performing a physical exam.

The doctor will:

  • Look for a C or S-shaped curve of the spine
  • Examine the patient for muscle weakness, numbness, abnormal reflexes
  • Order imaging tests (X-rays, ultrasound, or MRI)

Treatments for Scoliosis

Whether a person needs treatment depends on how severely the spine is curved. In addition, the age of the person is taken into account.

Children with mild scoliosis have flexible spines that can usually be corrected with a back brace. Children with severe scoliosis need back surgery.

Adult spines are less flexible and unlikely to improve just by wearing a brace but may improve with other treatments.

These treatments relieve some scoliosis symptoms and prevent further curving:

  • Spinal braces. A fitted back brace is a first-line treatment commonly used for children and adolescents.
  • Physical therapy. It is used for patients of all ages to strengthen the back and abdomen muscles, to support the spine properly.
  • Chiropractic care. Back pain may improve after spine manipulation under the care of a chiropractor.
  • Occupational therapy. Improves posture, builds muscle memory and helps patients with everyday activities.
  • Diet changes. People with scoliosis benefit from foods rich in Calcium, Vitamin D, and Magnesium, that strengthen the bones.
  • Surgery. A spinal fusion is needed in people with a curve of 45 degrees or more.

When Does a Pain Specialist Treat Scoliosis?

A pain specialist usually sees people with scoliosis when they are adults experiencing back pain. These people have disc and joint pain that may improve with treatments offered by an affiliated pain specialist at National Spine & Pain Centers.

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