You may remember reporting to the nurse in middle school for a scoliosis evaluation. If you were diagnosed with scoliosis in childhood, you likely wore a plastic brace as you grew. When most people hear of scoliosis they think of children, but adults can develop scoliosis, too.
“Adult scoliosis isn’t a new diagnosis, but it’s still growing in recognition. The treatment for adults is much different than the treatment for adolescents,” says John Chi, MD, MPH.
Dr. Chi is a Mass General Brigham neurosurgeon and director of the Spine Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Below, he joins James D. Kang, MD, Mass General Brigham orthopaedic surgeon and chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Brigham, to answer common questions about adult scoliosis.
Scoliosis an abnormal curvature of the spine. The spine is naturally curved, but people with scoliosis have curves that cause it to bend from side-to-side in an unnatural “C” or “S” shape. Any curve beyond 20 to 25 degrees is considered abnormal.
The primary cause of adult scoliosis is aging, or natural wear-and-tear, as well as degenerative arthritis that occurs within the joints of the spine. Scoliosis also can sometimes be hereditary, or the result of a past trauma.
“As a result of natural degeneration and arthritis, mild scoliosis is fairly common in advanced age. For some patients, however, deformity can progress and develop into spinal stenosis where nerves begin to get pinched,” says Dr. Kang.
The primary symptom of scoliosis is pain in the legs caused by these pinched nerves, as well as low-back pain. Some scoliosis patients may not experience symptoms. To diagnose scoliosis, doctors use x-ray and MRI imaging.
There are two main treatment options for adults with scoliosis: surgery and non-surgical interventions.
“Only a small percentage of patients with adult scoliosis need surgery, but if surgery is deemed necessary it’s generally due to dysfunction related to back and leg pain,” explains Dr. Kang. “Patients who need surgery can benefit tremendously, but surgery is most likely not the best option for more than 90% percent of adults with scoliosis.”
For patients who are considering surgery, Dr. Chi and Dr. Kang always remind them that spinal surgery is a major event. These are invasive surgeries, so the decision can warrant a second or third opinion. Both spine specialists counsel patients and help them deeply consider the surgical option.
The most common spinal surgery used to treat scoliosis is spinal fusion. During this procedure, the spine is fused to bone grafts or substitutes to hold the spine in a straighter position. Fusion is often incorporated into other surgical procedures, including, but not limited to:
Here are three things to keep in mind:
“Surgery is invasive. It’s not the best option for most adult scoliosis patients. If you’ve had scoliosis your whole life, you most likely won’t need surgery in your later years. However, if you were diagnosed earlier and your condition is worsening, you may be an appropriate candidate for surgery,” says Dr. Chi.
For more advanced scoliosis deformities, there’s a 30 to 40% complication rate following complex invasive spinal surgery. Such complications may include: damage to the rod and screws, and/or breakdown at the ‘stress points,’ which are the junctions where a surgeon has finished the fusion. Both complications require additional surgery. In rare cases, paralysis may occur.
Drs. Chi and Kang both encourage patients to research the available spinal surgeries and the background and experience of surgeons before making a commitment to a surgical team.
Most patients with scoliosis have mild forms of the condition that are easily treatable with conservative treatment. For these people, there are many options for managing pain and improving posture.
According to Drs. Chi and Kang, it’s best to exhaust the following non-surgical, conservative treatments before consulting with a surgeon:
Posture plays a role in back deformity. It’s difficult to avoid bad posture today. We bend our necks to use our phones, we slouch at our desks, and we often lift more than our backs can handle.
Be thoughtful about your posture during your day-to-day activities. Drs. Chi and Kang advise patients with back pain to stand up straight, even if they experience stiffness. With practice and awareness, the back can be conditioned to maintain better posture. The proper way to hold your body is to keep your head over your shoulders and your shoulders over your hips.
“With physical therapy and exercise, you can maintain better posture and thereby help prevent the need for surgery, because it’s possible to feel better once you’re in better posture,” says Dr. Chi.