What Is Scoliosis?

What is Scoliosis?

Scoliosis is a musculoskeletal condition that primarily affects children and adolescents but can also be present in adults. In people with scoliosis, there is an abnormal lateral curvature of the spine, causing the spinal column to bend to the left or the right. Viewed from behind, the spine of someone with scoliosis may resemble the letter S or C.

About 3 percent of the population has scoliosis. Verry mild curves are often not treated, but more severe deformities may require surgical correction. With care from an experienced spine specialist, scoliosis is highly treatable. Learn about scoliosis treatment in adults and the maintenance of pediatric scoliosis.

What Causes Scoliosis?


There are different types and causes of scoliosis:

  • Congenital scoliosis results from a malformation in the spine that develops before a child is born, when one part of the spinal column grows at a different rate than the other parts. 
  • Neuromuscular scoliosis is a spinal curvature that develops because of another neurological problem, such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, spinal muscular atrophy, or an injury to the spinal cord.
  • Idiopathic scoliosis, the most common type, accounts for 80 percent of scoliosis cases and is the diagnosis made when the other types are excluded. It is most often diagnosed during adolescence.

Signs and Symptoms of Severe Scoliosis


Most people experience no symptoms with mild scoliosis. It may be found during a physician's exam of the spine when the doctor can see or feel the curve but not cause any discomfort. Depending on the degree of the curve, scoliosis may cause:

  • Neck or back pain or achiness
  • Uneven shoulders or seeing one shoulder blade protruding more than the other
  • Uneven hips
  • A rib hump, where one side of the rib cage protrudes backward, especially when bending forward as if to touch the toes
  • Problems breathing if a curvature is very severe
  • Headache
  • Tingling, numbness, or weakness from a problem with a spinal nerve
  • Uneven gait

Other Types of Spine Curvature Abnormalities


Kyphosis or "hunched back" causes excessive forward curvature of the bones in the upper back (thoracic spine). People with kyphosis have an abnormally rounded appearance. Kyphosis in older adults is often caused by osteoporosis and can lead to compression fractures in the vertebrae. Mild kyphosis symptoms may include back pain or stiffness. In severe kyphosis, space in the chest may be reduced, impairing lung and heart function and possibly affecting swallowing.

Lordosis or "swayback" causes the spine to curve too far inward. There may still be space under an individual's lower back when lying flat on the floor. Like kyphosis, lordosis symptoms may include back pain or stiffness. There is an increased risk of lordosis in people with achondroplasia (dwarfism), discitis, obesity, osteoporosis, spondylolisthesis, and kyphosis.

Diagram demonstrating types of spinal deformities


What Happens if Spinal Deformities Are Left Untreated?

If Left Untreated

Some mild spinal curves do not require treatment but may be monitored to ensure they are not getting worse. Untreated scoliosis, kyphosis, and lordosis may cause the development of a severe curve affecting the ability of organs in the chest or abdomen to function correctly. This may cause problems with breathing, digestion, and heart function. If you have symptoms of a spinal deformity, you should see a doctor for a complete examination to see if you could benefit from a brace, physical therapy, or surgery.

Get Care

Find Treatment for Scoliosis at Och Spine at NewYork-Presbyterian

There's no reason to wait to see a doctor if you suspect you have a spinal deformity. The team at Och Spine has extraordinary experience evaluating spinal deformities and correcting them with the latest and most advanced treatments. We have offered hope to people who were turned away at other medical centers. 

Contact us for an appointment and learn how we can help you.