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Scoliosis Symptoms and Causes

Scoliosis is a sideways curvature of the spine that usually occurs during the growth spurt just before puberty. While scoliosis can be caused by conditions such as cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, the cause of most scoliosis is still unknown.

Most cases of scoliosis are mild, but some children develop spine deformities that continue to get more severe as they grow.

An especially severe spinal curve can reduce the amount of space within the chest, making it difficult for the lungs to function properly. Children who have mild scoliosis are monitored closely, usually with X-rays, to see if the curve is getting worse.

In many cases, no treatment is necessary. Some children will need to wear a brace to stop the curve from worsening. Others may need surgery to keep the scoliosis from worsening and to straighten severe cases of scoliosis. Here is more on symptoms and causes of scoliosis.

Symptoms in adolescents

The most common form of scoliosis appears in adolescents and it is known as adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. It can affect children from the age of 10. Idiopathic means that there is no known cause. Symptoms can include:

  • the head is slightly off center
  • the ribcage is not symmetrical
  • one hip is more prominent than the other
  • one shoulder, or shoulder blade, is higher than the other
  • the individual may lean to one side

Symptoms in infants

  • a bulge on one side of the chest
  • the baby might consistently lie curved to one side
  • in more severe cases, problems with the heart and lungs, leading to shortness of breath and chest pain

Some types of scoliosis can cause back pain but it is not usually painful. Back pain is not uncommon in older adults with long-standing scoliosis. If scoliosis is left untreated, problems can arise later in life, such as impaired heart and lung function.

What Causes Scoliosis?

In as many as 80% of cases, doctors don’t find the exact reason for a curved spine. However, some kinds of scoliosis do have clear causes. Doctors divide those curves into two types -- structural and nonstructural.

In nonstructural scoliosis, the spine works normally, but looks very curved. There are a number of reasons why this happens, such as one leg’s being longer than the other, muscle spasms, and inflammations like appendicitis. When these problems are treated, this type of scoliosis often goes away. In structural scoliosis, the curve of the spine is rigid and can’t be reversed.

Causes include:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Birth defects
  • Infections
  • Genetic conditions like Marfan syndrome and Down syndrome

Congenital scoliosis begins as a baby’s back develops before birth. Problems with the tiny bones in the back, called vertebrae, can cause the spine to curve. The vertebrae may be incomplete or fail to divide properly.

Doctors may detect this condition when the child is born. Or, they may not find it until the teen years. Family history and genetics can be risk factors for idiopathic scoliosis as well. If you or one of your children has this condition, make sure your other kids are screened regularly.

Scoliosis can sometimes lead to further emotional and physical problems. Having a visibly curved spine or wearing a back brace can cause problems related to body image, self-esteem and overall quality of life, especially in the teenage period.

If this is a problem for you or your child, you may find it useful to contact a scoliosis support group. These groups are a great source of information and support for people with scoliosis.