Scoliosis Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment
Scoliosis symptoms vary. Diagnosis requires exam and often x-rays. Several treatment options are available.
Scoliosis is a musculoskeletal disorder that adversely affects the shape of the spine (backbone). Basically, scoliosis is when the spine curves abnormally in one or more places. A scoliotic spine (when viewed from behind) will not be straight and may instead look like the letter “C” or “S” due to the side-to-side (right-to-left) curvature.
Individuals with scoliosis may exhibit no symptoms. Potential signs and symptoms of scoliosis can include:
- Uneven hips and/or shoulders (one is higher than the other)
- One shoulder blade sticks out more than the other
- Spine curves to one side
- Feeling tired in the back after standing or sitting
- Backache or low back pain
How is Scoliosis Diagnosed?
Regardless of the type of scoliosis, early diagnosis is of primary importance. The following are used to evaluate patients for scoliosis:
This includes an interview with a doctor and a review of the patient’s medical records. These are done in order to determine the presence any medical conditions that may be causing the spine curvature.
A portion of the exam will be done while the patient is bending forward as this position makes it easier to visualize certain irregularities.
Items that will be looked for during the exam include:
- Shoulders are not level (one shoulder is higher than the other)
- If the head is centered
- One side of the rib cage is higher than the other
- Pelvis is tilted/uneven
- Significant asymmetry between opposite sides of the body
- Certain changes in the skin (e.g., cafe au lait spots)
Patients with spinal curves, unusual back pain, or signs of underlying medical conditions will need imaging studies. These may include X-rays, CT scans, or an MRI of the spine. Which of these imaging studies will depend on what conditions are suspected to be involved in causing the scoliosis.
The standard method for assessing the curve is to measure the amount (angle) of the curve. This is technically called the Cobb angle. This measurement is determined from an X-ray of the spine. Basically, the bones (vertebrae) at the beginning and end of the curve are marked and then angle of the curve is measured. The amount, location, shape, and cause of the abnormal curve(s) will be used to determine the best course of treatment.
How is Scoliosis Treated?
Treatment of scoliosis depends on many factors, including:
- Cause/type of scoliosis
- Location of the curve
- Shape of the curve
- Severity of the curve (i.e., the Cobb angle)
- Skeletal maturity (whether the patient’s body is still growing)
Many patients with very mild spinal curves (especially those with idiopathic scoliosis) do not need treatment. However, they should be monitored by a doctor on a regular basis. Scoliosis treatment involves both surgical and non-surgical options. Non-surgical treatment of scoliosis is focused on slowing or preventing progression of the curve, as well as on cosmetic improvement.
For patients with smaller idiopathic curves, generally 20 degrees or less, observation may be the course of treatment. Patients are monitored and re-examined regularly, approximately every 4-6 months in adolescents and every few years in adults.
Bracing can be effective for certain patients with curves of approximately 20-40 degrees. However, not all patients with curves in this range will be candidates for bracing; other factors must be considered (e.g., patient age, the cause/type of scoliosis). The brace is worn to prevent the curve from getting worse. There are several different types of braces available. The type of brace will depend on several factors including the size and location of the curve.
Physical therapy may be used as part of a scoliosis treatment plan. The goal of physical therapy is strengthening (especially core strengthening) and symptom relief. Therefore, PT is utilized to provide some physical benefits; it is not used to formally treat the curvature.
Some patients may be self-conscious of their posture or their appearance when wearing a back brace, and therefore they may benefit from a formal support group.
Sometimes non-surgical treatments fail to work or are not an option and, therefore, surgery is required. The goal of scoliosis surgery is to correct the curve as much as possible.
The decision to surgically correct scoliosis is based on several factors including:
- Severity of the curve (generally curves greater than 45-50 degrees)
- Patient’s skeletal maturity (age)
- Rate at which the curve is progressing (getting worse)
- Patient’s symptoms and overall health status
A surgeon may use growth rods or perform a spine fusion. There are also different ways to perform scoliosis surgery. It is understandable that patients may want to avoid surgery; however, if left untreated, a curve that progresses can eventually adversely affect heart and lung function.
Alternative Treatments for Scoliosis
According to the Scoliosis Research Society: “Alternative treatments to prevent curve progression or prevent further curve progression such as chiropractic medicine, physical therapy, yoga, etc. have not demonstrated any scientific value in the treatment of scoliosis. However, these and other methods can be utilized if they provide some physical benefit. These should not, however, be utilized to formally treat the curvature in hopes of improving the scoliosis.”
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