Insight on Scoliosis

During the month of June, we highlight a common spinal disorder called scoliosis, as this is National Scoliosis Awareness Month! I think it’s fair to say that most people have heard of, or know someone with scoliosis. And when you hear the word scoliosis, you associate it with a curved spine. 

We commonly think of this as a problem that occurs during adolescence, in which the spine grows curved rather than straight. This is called adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, or AIS. While AIS is a spinal problem that often leads to surveillance over the course of the child’s growth phase, most children with AIS do not progress to curve sizes that require surgical straightening. These kids will most often lead normal lives with very little limitation, if any at all. At Virginia Spine Institute, we coach our patients and their families on ways to keep their back healthy into adulthood.

These simple instructions to keep your back healthy include:

  1. Never use nicotine
  2. Always maintain a healthy weight
  3. Keep a strong core
  4. And stay flexible – pilates & yoga can help with that

But what about adults that develop a curved spine as they age? Adult degenerative scoliosis is a very common problem that many people don’t even know they have until an x-ray is taken. In this instance, the spine actually  grows straight during adolescence. As wear and tear occurs over many years, combined with the heavy weight of gravity that we are constantly under, an asymmetry develops. This asymmetry can lead to tilting of one or more segments of the spine, very commonly seen in the lumbar spine. Remember, the lumbar spine makes up the low back and allows for quite a bit of our day-to-day motion. Once this tilting process occurs, it can worsen with time and aging.  

Some people are very lucky and never learn that they have this because they have no symptoms that warrant evaluation and diagnosis. Those people very often have been following those instructions that we give to the kids with AIS, perhaps without knowing it. They stay fit, strong, flexible, and never use nicotine. On the other hand, there are many people who develop symptoms associated with their curves. They can have joint pain, pinched nerves, disc tears or herniations just like patients with straight spines, but perhaps occurring at a higher frequency or a bit earlier in life.  In these patients, measuring the size of the curvature with x-rays is extremely helpful in guiding treatments.  

If after reading this you find yourself wondering if you have a curvature of the spine, here are a few simple ways to learn more:

  1. Look at yourself in a full length mirror, standing as straight as possible.
    1. Your shoulders and hips should be fairly level. 
    2. If you put your hands down at your sides, and one shoulder is higher than the other, this may be due to scoliosis.
    3. If you put your hands on your hips, and see that one side is higher than the other, this may be due to scoliosis.  
  2. Put on a pair of pants
    1. If one pant leg is longer on you than the other side (make sure you are standing straight), this may be due to scoliosis.
  3. Bend forward, keeping your legs straight.
    1. If someone looking at your back from behind sees half of your back raised higher than the other side, then this may be due to scoliosis.

For those who have no pain, keep staying fit, stay active, and continue to make healthy choices. Please also share this information to increase the awareness of scoliosis. Your message could help someone realize they should be seeking treatment for their condition and pain. 

But for those of you who have back pain or nerve related symptoms, such as leg pain, weakness, or numbness, then this warrants evaluation with a spinal specialist. At Virginia Spine Institute, our team of scoliosis specialists will not only help with your diagnosis, but are experts at designing treatment plans customized to you. We are able to treat a majority of scoliosis patients non-surgically, but have state-of-the-art surgical options when surgery is determined to be the best treatment for your scoliosis.

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