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Scoliosis: What parents should know

A group of teen or preteen soccer players.

While most cases are mild, the right treatment can make a big difference in your child's quality of life.

The spine is a remarkable thing. It has the strength to protect delicate nerves, as well as the flexibility to let us bend, rotate, stretch and move.

In most cases, a healthy spine has a few gentle forward and backward curves that help distribute the body's weight evenly. But in some people, the spine develops sideways curves shaped like the letters S or C when seen from behind. Doctors call this condition scoliosis.

While there's usually no pain at first, scoliosis can cause changes in posture and movement that may lead to discomfort later on. It can affect a person's strength and ability to get around. And in rare cases, it can reduce the amount of space available for the lungs or heart to work well. So finding and treating it can have a real impact on someone's quality of life.

Who's at risk?

While scoliosis can affect people of all ages, it typically develops during childhood and the early teenage years. Girls with scoliosis far outnumber boys. And it does run in families.

It develops slowly, so it may not be noticed at first. But it can progress rapidly after a teen's growth spurt, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports.

While scoliosis can be caused by a birth defect, injury or central nervous system disorder like muscular dystrophy, the cause of most cases is unknown.

The good news: Usually scoliosis is mild. In many cases, the curve is so small that it doesn't cause problems.

Watch for red flags

Your child's doctor may check for signs of scoliosis at their wellness checkups. But parents should keep an eye out too.

Possible signs of scoliosis may include:

  • An unusually curved upper body.
  • Uneven shoulders or hips.
  • A sunken chest.
  • A head that seems off-center.
  • The appearance of leaning to one side.
  • Back pain—though this isn't common.

Be sure to tell your child's doctor if you notice any of these symptoms. The doctor can diagnose scoliosis with a physical exam, medical history and x-rays.

Setting things straight

If your child does have scoliosis, a doctor may advise one of these treatments, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases and other experts:

Regular observation. If the curve is mild, a doctor may just recheck your child every few months to keep an eye on it.

Bracing. If your child has a moderate curve, a doctor may advise bracing. That means your child will need to wear a brace for all but a few hours of every day. Wearing one doesn't interfere much with physical activity. And certain types of braces can be easily hidden under clothes.

Surgery. If your child has a severe curve that is getting worse, a doctor may advise surgery to fuse together two or more bones in the spine. Usually, a metal rod will be placed in the spine to help keep it straight until the bones grow together on their own. On average that takes about a year. Bracing isn't needed after surgery.

Physical therapy. Alongside any of the treatments above, physical therapy might help a child maintain or regain strength and mobility—and feel their best.

Questions worth asking

To better understand your child's options, ask your child's doctor these questions:

  • How severe is the curve?
  • Is it temporary or permanent?
  • What are the treatment options?
  • What are the benefits and risks of each?
  • Are there lifestyle changes my child could make to help strengthen the spine?
  • Will scoliosis cause any long-term health problems for my child?
  • Are there support groups or other resources that could help us?

Remember: No question is too small when weighing treatment options for your child.

Learn more about the anatomy of the back.

Reviewed 8/29/2022

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