Scoliosis: When Perfect Posture Isn’t Possible

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Do you remember your parent or a long-ago teacher insisting that you “stand up straight”? When you have scoliosis, honoring that request just isn’t possible. Scoliosis is a condition that causes the spine to curve from left to right. Viewed from behind, scoliosis curves your spine like a C or an S. As it progresses, scoliosis causes your body to lean to one side.

The most common type is called idiopathic or adolescent scoliosis (idiopathic means “no known cause”). This shows up in children during puberty from about age 10 to 15. 

Degenerative or adult scoliosis shows up much later. In most cases, the cause is unknown. Some cases result from untreated or unrecognized adolescent scoliosis that gets worse as you get older. Scoliosis also may result from:

  • A spinal cord injury 
  • A muscular or neuromuscular disease like muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy 
  • Osteoporosis or other degenerative bone disease

Scoliosis is not the result of behaviors like carrying heavy backpacks, lifting heavy objects or poor posture. You’re more likely to develop scoliosis if your parent or sibling has it.

Scoliosis is a condition that causes the spine to curve from left to right.

What Are the Symptoms?

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You might notice your shoulders or hips are at different heights; your head doesn’t look centered to the rest of your body; or one of your arms hangs longer that the other because your upper body tilts to one side.

Scoliosis often causes no pain. But it can cause back pain due to the pressure that it puts on the nerves in your back or spinal cord. The pressure also can cause weakness or numbness in your legs, making it hard to walk. In rare cases scoliosis affects the heart and lungs, causing breathing difficulties or fatigue. 

In children, scoliosis usually isn’t painful. It is typically found during a school screening, or at a routine doctor appointment. 

How is Scoliosis Diagnosed and Treated?

Regardless of your age, X-rays are the main tool used to diagnose scoliosis. Your doctor can use the results to measure the degree of curvature of your spine and determine the best treatment. 

The treatment for degenerative (adult) scoliosis is usually conservative. Typically it includes mild pain medications, exercise and a brace to support your spine. Shoe inserts may lift your back and relieve pain. Surgery is sometimes considered if the degeneration has caused bone spurs to press on the spine and nerves, causing numbness and pain in both legs. This condition is called spinal stenosis. Because spinal surgery is serious and can lead to complications, it’s a good idea to get more than one opinion before deciding on surgery. 

If you’re still growing, the goal of treatment is to stop the curvature from getting worse. This treatment includes one or all three of the following:

  • Frequent observation: If the curve is minimal, your doctor may recommend waiting for follow-up X-rays to determine if the curve gets worse as you grow. 
  • Bracing: Wearing a brace can keep the curve from getting worse. Braces typically are worn for a specific number of hours each day, but can be removed in order to participate in physical activities.  
  • Surgery: If you have a severe curve that is getting worse, your doctor may recommend surgery to fuse together two or more bones in your spine. In some cases, a metal rod is inserted to keep the spine straight. Before moving forward with surgery, get opinions from two or more surgeons to be sure you understand the benefits and risks. 

Although it’s important to stay active and physically fit if you have scoliosis, unfortunately exercise programs have not been shown to keep scoliosis from getting worse. Chiropractic treatment, electrical stimulation and nutritional supplements also have not shown success in halting the progression of scoliosis.

It's easy to get the care you need.

See a Premier Physician Network provider near you.

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