A Patient's Guide to Adult Scoliosis
All spines have curves, but occasionally the spine twists and develops curves
in the wrong direction - sideways. It is natural for the spine to curve forward
and backward to a certain degree; this is what gives the spine its "S"-like
shape. However, when a person's spine twists and develops an "S"-shaped side-to-side
curve, it is a condition known as scoliosis.
A scoliosis curve can occur in a variety of areas throughout the spine. The
abnormal curve can occur in the thoracic spine, the lumbar spine, or both areas
at the same time. The curves can range in size from as minor as 10 degrees to
severe cases of more than 100 degrees. The measurement of the degrees of curvature
from the normal is a measure of how severe the scoliosis is. It also helps your
surgeon decide what treatment to suggest. Usually, curves of less than 40 degrees
will be treated without surgery (also known as conservative treatment), while
curves over this amount might be recommended for surgery.
Generally, the only cases where surgery is considered are severe cases that
lead to: continual physical pain, difficulty in breathing, significant disfigurement,
or continued progression of the curve. Curves above 100 degrees are rare, but
they can be life-threatening if the spine twists the body so much that the heart
and lungs do not function properly.
The most common types of scoliosis are first discovered and treated in childhood
or adolescence. Probably the most common type is what is called Idiopathic Adolescent
Scoliosis (IAP). This type of scoliosis occurs in teenagers just at the growth
spurt of puberty. Idiopathic adult scoliosis is generally treated with a brace,
or in severe cases, surgery at the end of the teenager's growth spurt.
For more information on idiopathic adolescent scoliosis, you may wish to review
to the document, entitled:
When scoliosis occurs (or is discovered) after puberty, the condition is called
"adult scoliosis" to distinguish it from the curves caused during growth. Adult
scoliosis can be the result of untreated or unrecognized childhood scoliosis,
or it can actually arise during adulthood. The causes of scoliosis that begins
in adulthood are usually very different from the childhood types.
The purpose of this information is to help you understand:
- The causes of adult scoliosis
- How a diagnosis is made
- Treatment for adult scoliosis
- Possible complications/problems from surgery
In order to understand your symptoms and treatment choices, you should start
with some basic understanding of the anatomy of your spine. This includes becoming
familiar with the various parts that make up the spine and how they work together.
Please review the document, entitled:
Most cases of adult scoliosis are idiopathic, which means we do not know their
cause. Sometimes adult scoliosis is the result of changes in the spine due to
aging and degeneration of the spine.
There are several types of scoliosis in adults:
- Idiopathic Curve - This is the most common type. Usually there is no clear-cut
reason why the spine is curved.
- Congenital Curve - The term "congenital" means that you were born with the
problem. A congenital scoliosis is present at birth. Many different problems
in growth and development can lead to spine problems. Fortunately, most of
these are rare. Congenital scoliosis may not be recognized, or may not be
severe enough to require treatment during childhood. The scoliosis may get
worse later in life due to wear and tear around the abnormal area of the spine.
- Paralytic Curve - "Paralytic" means that muscles do not work. When muscles
do not work around the spine, the spine itself may be thrown out of balance.
Over several years, this can result in a curvature of the spine developing.
This type of scoliosis is often caused by spinal cord injuries that lead to
- Myopathic Deformity - "Myopathic" means muscle that does not work properly.
Like paralytic curves described above, this curve results from a muscular
or neuromuscular disease, such as muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, or polio.
- Secondary - Scoliosis developed in adulthood can be a "secondary" cause
of another spinal condition that affects the vertebrae, such as degeneration,
osteoporosis (loss of bone mass), or osteomalacia (softening of the bones).
Scoliosis can also appear following spinal surgery. The surgery may cause
an imbalance in the spine that leads to scoliosis.
To learn more about degenerative adult scoliosis, you may wish to review the
Many patients with scoliosis visit a spine specialist because they notice a
problem with how the back looks. Many cases of scoliosis are painless. Patients
with scoliosis may notice some of the following things about their body:
- One shoulder or hip may be higher than the other
- One shoulder blade may be higher than the other and sticks out further
- These deformities are more noticeable when bending over
- A "rib hump" may occur when scoliosis causes the chest to twist; it causes
a hump on the back as the ribs on one side stick out further when bending
- One arm hangs longer than the other because of a tilt in your upper body
As the condition progresses, back pain can develop. The deformity may cause
pressure on nerves and possibly even the entire spinal cord. This can lead to
weakness, numbness, and pain in the lower extremities. In severe cases, pressure
on the spinal cord itself may cause loss of coordination in the muscles of the
legs making it difficult to walk normally. Finally, if the chest is deformed
due to the scoliosis, the lungs and heart may be affected leading to breathing
problems, fatigue, and even heart failure. Fortunately, these severe symptoms
are rarely the case.
If scoliosis is suspected in an adult, a diagnosis must be made before an appropriate
treatment plan can be developed.
In order to make a proper diagnosis and rule out other possible conditions,
the first step is to take a history. The provider may ask about the following:
- Family History - Scoliosis tends to run in families, so it may have a genetic
cause. Your provider will want to know if anyone else in your family has the
- Date of Onset - When did you first notice the appearance of your spinal
- Measured Curve Progression - If X-rays have been taken of your spine in
the past, the doctor will want to see if the curve is getting worse. This
can be measured comparing new X-rays with old ones, measuring the size of
the rib hump, or measuring changes in your height.
- Presence or Absence of Pain - Not all cases of scoliosis produce pain. However,
if there is pain, your doctor needs to know where it is, what brings on or
intensifies the pain, and if there is any radicular pain - pain that radiates
away from the spine itself. This usually comes from irritation of the nerves
as they leave the spine.
- Bowel or Bladder Dysfunction - Are you having problems knowing when you
have to urinate or have a bowel movement? This is extremely important because
it could signal the presence of serious nerve damage.
- Motor Function - Has there been a change in how your muscles work? This
may be the result of pressure on the nerves or spinal cord itself.
- Previous surgery - If you have had any surgery on your spine, it may have
caused some degenerative scoliosis due to weakened muscles. In order to evaluate
your condition properly, it is important that your physician knows about any
spinal surgery you have had in the past.
The spine specialist will then perform a physical examination. During the exam,
the provider will try get an understanding of the curve in your back and how
it is affecting you. This means first trying to get a "mental picture" of how
the spine is curved from examining your back and watching you move about. The
provider will measure the size of the rib hump deformity and the flexibility
you have bending in certain directions. Finally, your nerves will be tested
by: checking your sensation, your reflexes, and the strength of your muscles.
Usually, after the examination, X-rays will be ordered that allow the provider
to see the structure of the spine and measure the curve. During the X-rays,
you will be asked to hold certain positions while standing or lying on a table.
You will need to hold very still while pictures are taken of your spine. With
scoliosis the following images may be taken:
- Front view - These are X-rays of the entire spine taken from the front.
- Lateral view - These are X-rays of the entire spine taken from the side.
- Lateral bend - These are X-rays taken while you are bending sideways.
- Traction films - Traction is when your spine is pulled and held in a particular
position to take X-rays. These films are only occasionally taken.
Depending on the outcome of your history, physical examination, and initial
X-rays, other tests may be ordered to look at specific aspects of the spine.
The most common tests that are ordered are: the MRI scan - to look at the nerves
and spinal cord; the CAT scan - to get a better picture of the vertebral bones;
and special nerve tests - to determine if any nerves are being irritated or
To learn more about these tests, you may wish to review the document, entitled:
Treatment for Adult Scoliosis
Adult scoliosis has a variety of treatment options. Whenever possible, the
first choice of treatment for adult scoliosis is always going to be conservative.
Spinal surgery will always be the last choice of treatment due to the risks
involved. Conservative treatment that is commonly recommended includes: medications,
exercise, and certain types of braces to support the spine.
If osteoporosis is present, then treatment of the osteoporosis may slow the
progression of the scoliosis as well. This can be accomplished in several ways.
The current recommendations include: increasing your calcium and vitamin D intake,
hormone replacement therapy, and weight-bearing exercises.
For more information on osteoporosis, you may wish to review the document,
The use of a spinal brace may provide some pain relief. However, in adults,
it will not cause the spine to straighten. Once you have reached skeletal maturity,
bracing is used for pain relief rather than prevention. If there is a difference
in the length of your legs (or if the scoliosis causes you to walk somewhat
crooked), special shoe inserts, called orthotics, or a simple shoe lift may
reduce your back pain.
To learn more about the different types of braces available for the spine you
may wish to visit the document entitled:
Physical therapy and exercise is an important part of treating adult scoliosis.
A well-designed exercise program can also provide pain relief in many patients.
A physical therapist will develop an appropriate exercise routine for your case.
It is essential that you stick to the plan.
Typical advice includes:
- Learning correct body mechanics in order to maintain erect posture that
counteracts the effects of the scoliosis
- Doing regular non-jarring exercises, such as swimming
- Maintaining high levels of activity
- Doing your daily stretching exercises and deep breathing (for lung expansion)
Surgery for adult scoliosis carries with it relatively high risks. For this
reason, surgery is only recommended when the risks are far outweighed by the
expected benefits. Surgery will not be recommended for most cases of scoliosis,
particularly in curves of less than 40 degrees. Surgery may be recommended in
the following situations:
- Pain - The most common reason for surgery is pain relief for increasing,
chronic discomfort. About 85 percent of adult scoliosis surgeries are done
to relieve severe pain. However, if the pain is manageable through conservative
treatments, surgery will not usually be recommended.
- Progression of Curve - Progression of the scoliosis deformity is another
reason for considering surgery. If the curvature continues to worsen, and
it gets beyond 40 to 45 degrees, surgery may be suggested. Surgery is recommended
in this situation to prevent the problems that come from severe scoliosis.
Surgery will nearly always be recommended for curves above 60 degrees, as
the twisting of the torso can lead to more serious lung and heart conditions.
- Cosmetics - In most cases of scoliosis, surgery will not be recommended
simply for the sake of appearances. However, in some cases, the scoliosis
causes physical deformity that is unbearable to the patient. In these cases,
surgery is the only option for correcting the condition. Most cases of cosmetic
scoliosis surgery are in young adults that have very noticeable, unbalanced
When adult scoliosis requires surgery, many different procedures may be suggested.
Each case of scoliosis is somewhat different and may require a very specialized
approach for optimal results. Surgery is suggested to solve the problems brought
on by the scoliosis - not just to straighten the spine. The goals of most surgical
procedures for adult scoliosis are to:
- Reduce the deformity (straighten the spine as much as possible)
- Stop the progression of the deformity
- Remove any pressure from the nerves and spinal cord
- Protect the nerves and spinal cord from further damage
To succeed at doing these things, the spine surgeon may suggest an operation
on the back of the spine, the front of the spine - or both. The goal is to first
straighten the spine and then fuse the vertebrae together into one larger bone.
Nearly all surgeries will use some type of metal screws, plates, or rods in
order to help straighten the spine and hold the vertebrae in place while the
fusion heals and becomes solid. The screws are placed into the vertebra. The
rods or plates then attach to the screws to connect everything together. When
everything is tightened together, the "construct" forms a sort of internal brace
to hold the vertebrae in alignment while the fusion heals.
To better understand the types of procedures that are used to treat adult scoliosis,
please review the document, entitled:
Possible Complications/Problems with Surgery
With any surgery, there is a risk of complications. When surgery is done near
the spine and spinal cord these complications (if they occur) can be very serious.
Complications could involve subsequent pain and impairment and the need for
additional surgery. You should discuss the complications associated with surgery
with your doctor before surgery. The list of complications provided here is
not intended to be a complete list of complications and is not a substitute
for discussing the risks of surgery with your doctor. Only your doctor can evaluate
your condition and inform you of the risks of any medical treatment he or she
Please review the document, entitled:
In addition, the surgical treatment of adult scoliosis may result in two special
The lumbar (lower) spine naturally has a "C"-shaped curve called lordosis.
When the vertebrae in the lumbar spine are fused together, this lordosis curve
may be lost, leaving the patient with a "flat-back" deformity. However, the
loss of curve may not appear right after surgery. In fact, if the surgery it
is done in a young person, the loss of lordosis may not appear until sometime
between the ages of 30 to 50.
The term "pseudo" means false and "arthrosis" refers to joint. The term "pseudoarthrosis"
then means false joint. A surgeon uses this term to describe either a fractured
bone that has not healed or an attempted fusion that has not been successful.
A pseudoarthrosis usually means that there is motion between the two bones that
should be healed, or fused, together. When the vertebrae involved in a surgical
fusion do not heal and fuse together, there is usually continued pain. The pain
may actually increase over time. The spinal motion can also stress the metal
hardware used to hold the fusion. The screws and rods may break, leading to
an increase in pain. A pseudoarthrosis may require more surgery to try to get
the bones to heal. Your surgeon may add more bone graft, replace the metal hardware,
or add an electrical stimulator to try to get the fusion to heal.
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