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Scoliosis Symptoms in Adults and Kids

Published July 19, 2019

Scoliosis is an abnormal curve of the spine from side to side, in the shape of an “S” or a “C.” Many people have some curve in their spine, but it doesn’t always cause symptoms. If the curve is large enough, though, it can cause noticeable changes to the posture or other symptoms.

Not everyone with scoliosis needs treatment, but treatment usually works better if you identify the symptoms earlier.


Pediatric Versus Adult Scoliosis

Scoliosis is usually discovered in children and adolescents, what’s known as “pediatric scoliosis.” When scoliosis develops before age 10, it is known as “early-onset scoliosis.” After that, it’s called “adolescent scoliosis.”

Scoliosis happens more often before adulthood because the bones of the spine and the rest of the body are still growing. However, some adults develop scoliosis after puberty, when their bones have stopped growing. This is called “adult scoliosis.”

Adults with scoliosis may have had this condition when they were younger. They can also develop it later in life due to age-related (degenerative) changes to the spine, or as a result of paralysis, spinal surgery, trauma or other conditions.


Early Signs of Scoliosis

A curve in the spine has to be larger than 10 degrees in order for it to be considered scoliosis. People whose curves are smaller than this usually don’t have any long-term symptoms. Even people with mild scoliosis may not require treatment.

However, curves can sometimes become more severe over time. Scoliosis is often easier to treat when it is caught earlier. So even mild curves of the spine should be checked by a doctor and watched closely.

In children and adolescents, treatment may involve wearing a brace to help the spine grow straight. In more severe cases, surgery may be needed. In adults, treatment may include exercises, medication to control the pain, or surgery.

The early signs of scoliosis are subtle, so they may go unnoticed. These are often picked up during a routine exam done by a school nurse or family doctor. Adolescents are always checked for scoliosis.

Mild symptoms of scoliosis usually show up as changes in posture, such as:

  • One hip or shoulder looks higher than the other.
  • The head doesn’t appear to be centered over the body.
  • One shoulder blade sticks out more than the other.
  • The waist looks flat on one side, or the ribs look higher on one side, when you bend forward at the waist.
  • The person leans to one side while standing straight.


Symptoms of Severe Scoliosis

Larger curves of the spine can cause more severe symptoms. In children and adolescents, symptoms of severe scoliosis may show up as:

  • Back pain. This pain can be caused by scoliosis or by another spine condition, such as herniated spinal disc or a spinal tumor. The doctor will run tests to determine the cause of the pain and best treatment.
  • Trouble breathing. If the curve in the spine is large, the lungs may not have enough room to work properly. Curves this severe usually start in children before age 10.

In adults with severe scoliosis, symptoms may be due to scoliosis or another spine condition. Symptoms include:

  • Back pain
  • Difficulty balancing while walking or standing
  • Symptoms of spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal) such as pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness in the arms or legs
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control (this is more rare)


Concerns about appearance

Both children and adults may be worried about how scoliosis affects the way they look, including changes in their height or posture, or how their clothes fit. Early treatment can help keep the curve from worsening, and in young people, help the spine grow straighter.


Does scoliosis affect walking?

Mild cases of scoliosis do not usually affect walking. However, more severe scoliosis can cause the hips and torso to be out of alignment, which can make it harder to walk easily.


Conclusion

Scoliosis symptoms can often be difficult to see early on. But as the curve in the spine worsens, changes to the posture may become more noticeable. People may also develop other symptoms such as back pain. Any curve that is noticeable, or other back symptoms, should be checked by a doctor. They will help determine the cause and the best course of action.


Quiz: Do I Have Scoliosis?

The early symptoms of scoliosis are subtle, so it’s not always easy to tell if you have an abnormal curve in your spine. To help you decide if it’s time to see a doctor, take this scoliosis quiz.

Stand in front of a mirror in your bathing suit or tight-fitting clothing and ask yourself the following questions. You can also have a friend or family member observe your posture.

If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, talk to your doctor. They can do a more thorough examination and run additional tests if needed to determine if you have scoliosis.

  1. Does one shoulder or hip look higher than the other?
  2. Does your head not look centered over the body?
  3. Does one shoulder blade stick out more than the other?
  4. When you bend forward at the waist, does your waist look flat on one side, or do the ribs look higher on one side?
  5. Do you lean to one side while standing straight?

Want to know more about scoliosis? Try this home screening test to see if you could potentially have this condition.

Updated: July 29, 2019

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  • Scoliosis occurs when a person has an abnormal left-to-right curving of the spine in the shape of a letter S or C. While doctors don’t know exactly what causes the most common type of scoliosis, there are options for treating the condition and preventing it from worsening in some cases.

Contributors and Experts

Dr. Benjamin Bjerke is fellowship-trained in neurosurgery and orthopedic spine surgery and specializes in surgical procedures of the cervical spine as well as minimally invasive lumbar procedures.

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