Scoliosis, a condition that causes the spine to curve, is often thought of as something that only happens in children. But the diagnosis isn’t just for kids: scoliosis can also happen in adults, who may live with it for years without developing symptoms. Others keep it at bay with regular exercise and healthy living. For some, the condition can generate severe pain and disability, eventually requiring surgery, but for most, scoliosis is treatable without surgery.
Here are a few things to know if you’ve been diagnosed with or think you might have adult scoliosis.
The three types of scoliosis
- Congenital scoliosis is a major spinal deformity at birth, a severe condition typically requiring surgery.
- Idiopathic scoliosis appears with no known cause during adolescence, and can be carefully monitored over time.
- Adult degenerative scoliosis occurs as people age due to degenerative problems in the spine, everyday spinal wear and tear, and the asymmetric collapse of discs over time.
Scoliosis often lacks symptoms
In some 70% of adults over 60, X-rays will detect a curved spine—20% of those present with curves greater than 20 degrees. Nonetheless, painful symptoms are less common.
When it’s time to see a spine doctor
Scoliosis is easier to treat early, before there is a dramatic curve to the spine. You should consider seeing a doctor if you:
- Have back, leg or nerve pain
- Experience balance problems
- Notice a change in the symmetry of your shoulders
- Experience progressive height loss
Non-surgical treatments may range from anti-inflammatory medications to muscle relaxers and physical therapy for core strengthening. Research shows that narcotic medication should be avoided if at all possible. The next tier of treatments include steroid or localized anesthetic blocks to the spine that block pain receptors along joints, reducing back pain.
When is surgery necessary?
When non-surgical treatments such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and physical therapy are no longer effective, minimally invasive or open surgery may be necessary to correct spinal curves.
During the procedure, spine surgeons realign the spine and prevent the curve from worsening using rods and screws by removing arthritic joints, or by cutting and fusing vertebrae into a corrected position.
If that sounds scary, don’t worry. Your doctor will help guide you to the right treatment path and answer all questions or concerns you may have. Choosing the right approach depends on the characteristics of the curve, your age and how well prepared you are for surgery, known as “prehabilitation.”
The long-term outlook for scoliosis patients
Long-term outlooks for people living with minor spinal curvature is quite good, with a mild chance of progression over time. Should your scoliosis cause medication-resistant pain or difficulties performing dally activities, surgery is an option—and new technology makes those procedures safer and more effective than ever, offering a vastly improved quality of life.
About the author
Jeremy Denning, MD
, is a neurosurgeon on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Plano.