Despite the fact that it’s a fairly common problem — affecting about 5 percent of children and adolescents and about 2 percent to 3 percent of the general population — the causes of scoliosis still aren’t well-understood. It’s a lifelong spinal condition that results from the spine becoming “off center” and growing sideways, so it winds up curving in the shape of an “S” or “C” and causing a lot of back pain.
Unfortunately, when many patients get a diagnosis of scoliosis from their doctors, they’re told it’s “idiopathic,” meaning the cause isn’t entirely known and therefore treatment can be very difficult. (1)
For decades, it was somewhat of a mysterious disease and thought of as a difficult problem to help treat. While there’s no definitive cure for scoliosis, what we’ve learned in recent years is that the way best to reduce symptoms and stop it from progressing is to address its underlying cause, eradicating the spinal problem that’s formed at its root. Bracing techniques, anti-inflammatory prescription medications and spinal fusion surgerymight be the norm still today and can help ease pain and symptoms, but unfortunately they come with risks and don’t fully address what’s happening below the surface.
While there still isn’t a complete cure for scoliosis even with natural treatments, some people can see improvements from 10 percent to 30 percent within just several months when undergoing certain chiropractic adjustments and using targeted spinal exercises. Most importantly, these treatments can also help stop the spinal curvature from further progressing and therefore prevent unnecessary surgeries that cannot be reversed once performed.
Signs and Symptoms of Scoliosis
Symptoms commonly appear during adolescent years, especially during the growth spurt around the time of puberty, but older adults with back pains can be diagnosed with scoliosis for the first time too.
What does scoliosis look like and feel like in the body? Some of the most common signs and symptoms include: (2)
- Pain in the back (up to 90 percent of scoliosis patients report feeling pain, which is the most primary concern for many patients)
- A leaning of the entire body toward one side
- One shoulder blade is higher than the other
- One hip seems to be raised compared to the other
- An uneven waistline
- The head is off-center above the shoulders and might not appear directly above the pelvis or midline
- The spine appears to be growing sideways and developing into an “S” shape or a “C” shape (research shows that S-shaped curves tend to worsen more often than do C-shaped curves, and curves located in the center thoracic section of the spine worsen more often than do curves in the upper or lower sections) (3)
- Tingling sensations or acute numbness in the limbs, finger or toes
- Loss of balance
- Accelerated aging of spinal discs
- Decreased lung volume
- Psychological distress and anxiety (especially in children or teens if they need to wear a back brace, which can feel embarrassing)
Facts About Scoliosis: Prevalence, Risk Facts and Complications
- Scoliosis is the No. 1 spinal problem affecting school-aged children. The primary age of onset and diagnoses is between 10–15 years old. (4)
- Reports show that around 80 percent of scoliosis patients receive an idiopathic diagnoses, meaning there is no definitive cause or “cure” for their condition. This leaves many patients and their families feeling uncertain and frustrated about the outcome, although there’s hope that natural treatments can make a big impact.
- The exact causes still aren’t known, but contributing factors include: birth defects (congenital scoliosis, which means the scoliosis has a hereditary origin), spinal cord injuries, and problems with muscle and nerve functions, such as muscular dystrophy. (5)
- Many patients and their concerned families are given one of three treatment options: either “wait and watch” the spine for progression, use bracing, or undergo surgery — all of which come with drawbacks.
- Each year scoliosis patients make more than 600,000 visits to private physician offices. An estimated 30,000 children are put into spinal braces to help treat the condition, while 38,000 patients undergo spinal fusion surgery.
- Complications can occur when muscles and tissues of the body become deformed by months or even years of the body compensating for abnormal twisting and bending of the spine. These complications can continue even after bracing or surgery.
- During the “watch and wait” period, many cases continue to progress, even past the point of skeletal maturity. Some studies have found a mean progression of 2.4 degrees per year over the course of five years, and in adolescents scoliosis on average progresses more than 10 degrees after 22 years.
- Aside from affecting good posture, scoliosis can negatively impact quality of life, cause pain, impair normal lung functions, disturb sleep, and reduce the ability to exercise and live normally. Poor body image is also common, and repeated X-rays might also raise the risk for serious problems due to radiation exposure.
How Does Scoliosis Develop?
Scoliosis is essentially one symptom of a deeper biological problem. It results in mechanical dysfunction of the spine, although the degree to which this occurs and exactly how it impacts the spine’s curvature and alignment differs from one patient to another. While scoliosis treatment approaches work best when they’re customized and take into account the patient’s unique history, there are several things that seem to work well for the majority of patients:
- improving diet
- receiving chiropractic care
- practicing targeted spinal exercises
Scoliosis patients can experience a wide range of symptoms and severity depending on how much the disease has progressed; basically no two patients have the exact same spinal alignment, degree of damage, bone density or spine curvature. Many people show some signs of abnormal spinal alignment, but doctors don’t usually worry about this unless the curvature of the spine is off by more than 10 degrees.
For some people, what starts out as minor spinal curvature worsens when the spine twists on its center, which causes the rib cage to be pulled away from its normal alignment. When someone has a spinal curve greater than 30 degrees, the condition is more likely to progress, sometimes going all the way to a 60-degree curvature, which can cause complications such as respiratory problems and trouble breathing normally.
On average, people with scoliosis suffer a 14-year reduction in their life expectancy, due to strain on the heart and reduced amount of oxygen supplied to the body. (6) Scoliosis is also associated with lung impairments, headaches, shortness of breath, digestive problems, chronic disease, and hip, knee and leg pains.