What is scoliosis?

Your spine is made up of 24 bones that stack on top of each other- normally in a straight line. “Scoliosis” means that your spine is curving from side to side, rather than being straight. Scoliosis affects between 1-3% of the population. Scoliosis may begin at any time between birth and adulthood but is most common during times that your skeleton is growing rapidly. Most cases of scoliosis begin between the ages of 13 and 18. Researchers are not completely certain why some people develop scoliosis, but they have found that the problem tends to run in families.

The curve of your scoliosis may be measured with an x-ray. Although some curves get worse, most do not. In fact, only ¼ of all adolescent idiopathic scoliosis curves will progress. Small curves in mature patients have a low risk of progression (2%), while large curves in younger patients progress more frequently. (70%) Curve progression is more common in girls, especially those with larger curves (greater than 20 degrees). Your doctor may need to monitor your scoliosis for progression by performing x-rays every 6-18 months.

Scoliosis may cause your shoulders, hips, or waist to be unlevel. Most curves are classified as “right thoracic”, which means that the peak of your curve protrudes toward the right. This is often accompanied by a forward rotation of your right shoulder and “winging” of your right shoulder blade. Many patients have a secondary curve in their lower spine that helps to balance their body. The majority of patients with mild to moderate scoliosis have no symptoms, but approximately ¼ report back pain. Unfortunately, scoliosis increases your risk of developing back pain later in life.

The primary goal of treatment is to stop curve progression. While many cases can be slowed or even reversed through appropriate management, it is important to recognize that others may progress in spite of the best care. Conservative care, including spinal manipulation (like the type provided in our office) has been shown to help some patients with scoliosis. Exercise is another effective treatment for scoliosis. It is important that you clearly understand your home exercise program and that you perform it consistently.

Patients with larger curves (30-40 degrees), or those who are at high risk for progression may benefit from wearing a brace. Braces have been shown to decrease the need for surgery in about three out of four patients. Fortunately, less than 0.3% of all scoliosis cases will ever require surgery.

You should avoid carrying heavy back packs and consider switching to a wheeled version, if necessary. Sports and exercise will not worsen most cases of scoliosis, and you should continue to participate in the things you enjoy unless directed otherwise by your doctor. The diagnosis of scoliosis is always discouraging, but you must focus on what it is really most important. Be confident in who you are! Don’t let something like a curved spine (or any other medical condition) define you as a person.


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