Every person’s spine curves to some degree. In certain people, that S- or C-shaped curvature becomes too prominent, and they develop a condition called scoliosis. It’s unpreventable and, in most cases, the cause is unknown.
The most common type affects teens and preteens. Though severe curvature is more prevalent in girls, most kids have only a mild case that won’t cause pain or future problems.
“When you think about scoliosis, the most common thing that pops into your head is kids. It’s usually teenagers who get it,” says Greg Mundis, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines.
You might remember your doctor asking you to bend at the waist during your annual checkup. This is called the Adams forward bend test, and it’s one of the ways physicians check for curvature, along with X-rays and a device or app called a scoliometer. If the curve reaches 7 degrees, treatment is recommended. For kids who are still growing, that could mean a brace designed to reshape the spine.
“Think of a tree that’s growing crooked,” says Dr. Mundis. “You tie a straight stick to it and the tree grows straight. That’s how the brace works. You apply pressure so that when the spine grows, it naturally grows into a straighter alignment.”
Scoliosis can present in adulthood, though it’s less common. Tumors, infections and accidents can also cause the spine to curve.
Dr. Mundis says: “When you have 7 degrees scoliosis as a kid, you still have it as an adult. The other version is called de novo scoliosis, when the spine wears out from arthritis, degeneration, disc herniations or just aging. Sometimes the little bones and discs in the back don’t collapse symmetrically, so what ends up happening is the spine twists and you’re left with scoliosis.”
People with scoliosis have a slightly higher incidence of back pain relative to people without it, though that doesn’t necessarily mean more hospital admissions or more surgery down the line.
Usually, if the patient is not in pain, no further treatment is required, just observation. Physical therapy and medications like nerve blockers and epidurals can be used in certain patients who are experiencing pain.
Surgery, traditionally to insert rods or fuse vertebrae, is reserved for cases where the scoliosis is causing disability, though innovative new technologies like custom implants are making these treatments less invasive, safer and easier to recover from. According to Dr. Mundis: “This type of intervention is not nearly as scary as it used to be.”
Though there is nothing one can do to prevent scoliosis, there are ways to stop it from progressing. Dr. Mundis says to take care of your spine by eating well, exercising and addressing dietary deficiencies, such as vitamin D and calcium.
Watch the San Diego Health video with host Susan Taylor and Dr. Mundis discussing causes, symptoms and treatments for scoliosis.