Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine, or backbone. Instead of a straight vertical line from the neck to the buttocks, the spine has a C- or S-shape. This can result in uneven shoulders and hips.
In most cases, the cause of scoliosis is unknown. Sometimes it is related to a congenital birth defect, disease, or infection. It usually develops in childhood before puberty, though it may not be diagnosed until the teen years. Scoliosis is classified by the age at diagnosis:
Occasionally, the spine curvature of scoliosis is due to a muscle imbalance rather than a spinal deformity.
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.
Risk factors include:
More severe cases of scoliosis can lead to:
Scoliosis is often screened routinely in well-child visits and schools. At an office visit your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. The doctor will examine the following:
Other tests and diagnostic methods may include:
X-ray or MRI
The doctor measures the angle of the curve on x-rays. In general, curves that are greater than 20° require observation and treatment. Doctors classify curves of the spine by their location, shape, pattern, and cause. They use this information to decide how to treat the scoliosis.
Referral to a Spine Doctor
Your doctor may refer you to an orthopedic spine specialist, a doctor who has experience treating people with scoliosis.
Children with mild spinal curves generally do not need treatment. The type of treatment depends on:
Treatment options include:
Your doctor will probably just monitor the curve by examining you every 3-6 months if your curve is less than 20° or if you are almost done growing.
The goal of bracing is to prevent curves from getting worse. Your doctor may recommend that you wear a back brace if you are still growing and your curve is more than 20°. Once you stop growing, the need for more treatment will depend on the size of the curve and how it affects your appearance and function. Braces are not typically used beyond the ages of 15-16 for girls and 17-18 for boys.
Bracing will feel uncomfortable at first. Children will need lots of support to wear the brace as prescribed, as well as encouragement to foster a positive body image.
In severe cases where the curvature is greater than 40°-50°, your doctor may recommend surgery to correct a curve or stop it from worsening if you are still growing. Surgery typically involves fusing the vertebrae of the spine together or the use of internal rods to decrease the curvature. Hospitalization can last 5-7 days. Recovery can take several months. Surgical techniques using stapling methods or implants, as well as other surgical techniques are also available, but some are still experimental.
If your child is diagnosed with scoliosis, follow your doctor's instructions.
There are no guidelines for preventing scoliosis because the cause is usually unknown. Some schools have scoliosis screening programs to detect scoliosis, usually in the fifth or sixth grade. If scoliosis is detected in school, you will be advised to follow-up with your doctor.
American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons
Scoliosis Research Society
Caring for Kids
American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons website. Available at:
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at:
Rosenberg JJ. Scoliosis. Pediatr Rev. 2011;32(9):397-398.
Scoliosis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us. Updated July 2009. Accessed July 9, 2009.
Scoliosis. Mayo Clinic website. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/scoliosis/DS00194. Accessed July 9, 2009.
Vertebral body stapling for idiopathic scoliosis. Department of Health and Aging (Australia) website. Available at: http://www.horizonscanning.gov.au/. Accessed July 9, 2009.
Last reviewed September 2012 by Kari Kassir, MD