Scoliosis is most commonly perceived as a sideways curvature of the spine. However, in reality, it is much more complex. Scoliosis is not a curve as much as it is a helix; a three-dimensional “coiling” of the spine. As the spine rotates, it can cause changes in the appearance of the ribs, shoulders, and hips, which can lead to health problems, general discomfort and noticeable changes in appearance.
Scoliosis is the most common spinal condition in children and adolescents, and is also quite common in adults. One study found that nearly 20% of adults have scoliosis, and another found scoliosis in two-thirds of people over 60 years old.
Scoliosis is typically more common in females than males. However, this is only true in adolescence and adulthood. In very young children, scoliosis can be found equally, or even more commonly, in males.
Scoliosis affects people of all ethnicities and nationalities, although some populations seem more susceptible than others. It is not contagious, and it’s highly unlikely there is anything you can do to “get” scoliosis. The true cause of most cases is unknown.
Scoliosis can cause health problems, but there isn’t always a correlation between the severity of the scoliosis and the symptoms it causes. Sometimes an individual with mild scoliosis can have a great deal of pain or postural changes, and sometimes an individual with severe scoliosis will have no pain or noticeable changes in their posture. Every person with scoliosis is different, and deserves to be evaluated as such.
Most cases of scoliosis are termed “idiopathic,” meaning that the cause is not readily identifiable. Scoliosis can be further classified as infantile, juvenile, adolescent, or adult. However, these terms describe when the scoliosis was first diagnosed - not necessarily when the condition began.
While scoliosis has a tendency to run in families, it is not a genetic disorder. There is not one single gene that causes scoliosis. Even in identical twins, one may develop scoliosis while the other does not. Scoliosis is caused by many different factors interacting together, and differs from person to person.
Scoliosis can develop for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it develops because a bone in the spine didn’t grow properly - this is called congenital scoliosis. Certain diseases, such as cerebral palsy, can also cause scoliosis. If scoliosis develops due to a disease, it is often called neuromuscular scoliosis. It is also possible for scoliosis to develop as a result of a trauma, such as an accident or surgical procedure.
Despite there being many risk factors to identify whether or not scoliosis will get worse, this can be difficult to determine, and if so, by how much. Scoliosis is more likely to progress, or worsen, during times of rapid growth such as adolescence, and can also get worse during pregnancy and menopause. While this is not true for every case, it is important to monitor scoliosis closely during these times.
Scoliosis is diagnosed when an x-ray, taken of the spine in a frontal position, reveals a Cobb angle over 10 degrees. Cobb angle is the simplest and most common method of measuring scoliosis, although it has flaws.
CLEAR advocates using multiple measurements to assess the severity of a specific case of scoliosis, and not relying only on Cobb angle. It’s also important to consider other factors, such as what the spine looks like from the side and from the top-down, and how the person with scoliosis feels about their condition.
People decide to receive scoliosis treatment for many reasons. The most common reason is they don’t like the changes it causes in their posture and appearance. Some people seek help because it causes pain or limitations in physical function. Others, with no health or posture problems, may want to receive treatment simply to reduce or prevent problems from developing down the road.
It is the official position of CLEAR that every individual should decide for themselves whether or not they would like to receive treatment, and have the right to choose the treatment they prefer to receive.