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An in-depth report on the causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of scoliosis.


In general, the severity of the scoliosis depends on the degree of the curvature and whether it threatens vital organs, specifically the lungs and heart. (However, in general, the mortality rate for patients who had adolescent idiopathic scoliosis is normal.)

  • Effect of Mild Scoliosis (less than 20 degrees). Mild scoliosis is not serious and requires no treatment other than monitoring.
  • Effect of Moderate Scoliosis (between 25 and 70 degrees). It is still not clear whether untreated moderate scoliosis causes significant health problems later on. Some studies have found no difference in either back pain or survival rates in adult untreated patients versus the general population. In one study, adults with moderate scoliosis had normal lung function, although they had difficulty exercising. (The researchers believed that this low exercise tolerance might have been because many patients with scoliosis do not engage in regular physical activity.)
  • Effect of Severe Scoliosis (over 70 degrees). If the curvature exceeds 70 degrees, the severe twisting of the spine that occurs in structural scoliosis can cause the ribs to press against the lungs, restrict breathing, and reduce oxygen levels. The distortions may also affect the heart and possibly cause dangerous changes.
  • Effect of Very Severe Scoliosis (Over 100 degrees). Eventually, if the curve reaches over 100 degrees, both the lungs and heart can be injured. Patients with this degree of severity are susceptible to lung infections and pneumonia. Curves greater than 100 degrees increase mortality rates, but this problem is very uncommon in America.

Some experts argue that simply measuring the degree of the curve may not identify patients in the moderate and severe groups who are at greatest risk for lung problems. Other factors (e.g., spinal flexibility, the extent of asymmetry between the ribs and the vertebrae) may be more important in predicting severity in this group.

Effects on Bones

A number of factors associated with scoliosis increase the risk for bone loss, which is referred to as osteopenia. People with osteopenia are at greatly increased risk of osteoporosis, a common problem in older women that can cause broken bones and is particularly dangerous for women with a history of scoliosis. Experts recommend that children with scoliosis be screened for osteopenia so that measures can be taken to help prevent osteoporosis later on.

The external structures of the heart include the ventricles, atria, arteries and veins. Arteries carry blood away from the heart while veins carry blood into the heart. The vessels colored blue indicate the transport of blood with relatively low content of oxygen and high content of carbon dioxide. The vessels colored red indicate the transport of blood with relatively high content of oxygen and low content of carbon dioxide.

Long -Term Problems in Previously Treated Scoliosis Patients

Studies are reporting that after 20 years or more scoliosis patients who had been previously treated with surgery experience small but significant physical impairment, mainly mild back problems, compared to their peers without scoliosis. In one study, 65% of patients reported some low back pain (compared to 47% of people without a history of scoliosis). In general it was mild, although 45% of patients reported having to take days off from work compared to 19% of nonscolosis patients. In another study, only 1.5% of the scoliosis group had severe debilitating back pain. In general, the quality of life was similar, however. Pain also did not play a major role in social limitations.

The following are some possible causes of later back problems in people with a history of treated scoliosis:

  • Spinal fusion disease. Patients who are surgically treated with fusion techniques lose flexibility and may experience weakness in back muscles due to injuries during surgery.
  • Disk degeneration and low back pain. With disk degeneration, the discs between the vertebrae may become weakened and rupture. In some patients, years after the original surgeries, particularly with the first generation of the Harrington rods, the weight of the instrumentation can cause disk and joint degeneration severe enough to require surgery. Treatment may involve removal of the old instrumentation and extension of the fusion into the lower back. Still, most patients do not experience significant back pain from these problems.
  • Height loss.
  • Scarred regions. Pain can occur from old scars in the incision areas.
  • Lumbar flatback. This condition is most often the result of a scoliosis surgical procedure called the Harrington technique, which eliminated lordosis (the inward curve in the lower back). Adult patients with flatback syndrome tend to stoop forward. They may experience fatigue and back and even neck pain.
  • Rotational trunk shift (uneven shoulders and hips).

Note. Evidence suggests that previous treatment with braces may also cause mild back pain and more days off, but problems appear to be less than with surgery. In one study, dysfunction was comparable to people without a history of scoliosis.

Problems in Adult-Onset or Untreated Childhood Scoliosis

Pain in adult-onset or untreated childhood scoliosis often develops because of posture problems that cause uneven stresses on the back, hips, shoulders, necks, and legs. In one study conducted 20 years after growth had stopped, two thirds of adults who had lived with curvatures of 20 to 55 degrees reported they experienced back pain. In this study, most cases were mild, although others have reported that adults with a history of scoliosis tend to have chronic and more back pain than the general population.

Nearly all individuals with untreated scoliosis at some point develop spondylosis, an arthritic condition in the spine. The joints become inflamed, the cartilage that cushions the disks may thin, and bone spurs may develop. If the disk degenerates or the curvature progresses to the point that the spinal vertebrae begin pressing on the nerves, pain can be very severe and may require surgery. Even surgically treated patients are at risk for spondylosis if inflammation occurs in vertebrae around the fusion site.

Long-Term Emotional Impact of Scoliosis and Its Treatments

Emotional Impact in Childhood. The emotional impact of scoliosis, particularly on young girls or boys during their most vulnerable years, should not be underestimated. Adults who have had scoliosis and its treatments often recall significant social isolation and physical pain. Follow-up studies of children who had scoliosis without having strong family and professional support often reported significant behavioral problems. Fortunately, current treatments are solving many of the problems that previous generations had to deal with, including unsightly bracing and extremely painful surgeries with little pain control.

Emotional Effects in Adults. Of some concern are growing numbers of adults with scoliosis. This group experiences considerable problems in general health, social functioning, emotional and mental health, as well as pain.

Older people with a history of treated scoliosis may carry negative emotional events into adulthood that have their roots in their early experiences with scoliosis. Many studies have reported that patients who were treated for scoliosis have limited social activities and a poorer body image in adulthood. Some patients with a history of scoliosis have reported a slight negative effect on their sexual life. Pain appears to be only a minor reason for such limitation.

Effects on Pregnancies and Reproduction

Women who have been successfully treated for scoliosis have only minor or no additional risks at all for complications during pregnancy and delivery. A history of scoliosis also does not endanger the child. Pregnancy itself, even multiple pregnancies, does not increase the risk for curve progression. Women who have severe scoliosis that restricts the lungs, however, should be monitored closely.

Risks of Cancer from Multiple X-Rays

Some evidence suggests a slightly higher risk for breast cancer and leukemia in patients who had multiple x-rays. Risks are highest in patients who had the largest radiation exposure, such as those who had been surgically treated.

Patients who simply received x-ray series for untreated idiopathic scoliosis or scoliosis caused by uneven length legs or hip abnormalities had a very low risk for any future complications.

X-ray Click the icon to see an image of an x-ray.

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