Remember when you were a kid, and every year you had to line up in front of the school nurse and bend over so she could check your spine? What she was looking for was scoliosis, or a curved spine.
Sometimes babies are born with a curved spine, because bones called vertebrae in their spine didn't form correctly in the womb. Others develop scoliosis because of conditions that weaken the muscles or lead to paralysis, like cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, or polio. Sometimes doctors can't find a cause for scoliosis.
So, what are the signs your child has scoliosis?
You might notice that one shoulder is higher than the other, or the pelvis is tilted. If the spine is only a little bit curved, you may not spot any differences in your child's body. But sometimes the abnormal curve can cause backaches.
Your doctor will diagnose scoliosis with the same test school nurses use, by having your child bend over and looking for a curve in the spine. A nervous system exam can find problems with strength or reflexes. Imaging tests such as x-rays or an MRI will give the doctor a better view of your child's spine.
Now, if scoliosis is diagnosed, you probably ask, how is it treated?
Children and teens who don't have much of a curve in their spine may not need to be treated. They should just be checked about once every 6 months to make sure the curve hasn't gotten worse. Kids with more severe scoliosis may need a brace to press the spine straight. Bracing only works for certain types of scoliosis, though.
Really dramatic curves usually need surgery to fuse the bones in the spine together. The bones are held in place with hooks and screws until they heal together.
The biggest impact of scoliosis is usually on a child's appearance. Having a curved spine can be embarrassing, and it can help for kids to get emotional support while they are being treated. When scoliosis is minor enough to be treated with a brace or surgery, kids usually do very well. A more severely curved spine is likely to get worse after the child stops growing. Kids with severe scoliosis may develop breathing problems and low back pain as adults.
Because middle schools screen students for scoliosis, it's caught much earlier than it used to be, offering kids a better chance for treatment. If you think your child might have scoliosis, call your doctor.
Review Date: 2/18/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.