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Scoliosis: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Scoliosis
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What is Scoliosis?

Scoliosis is an abnormal side-to-side curve in the spine that occurs most often during the growth spurt that happens before the onset of puberty. Conditions such as muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy may cause scoliosis, but most of the time the cause is unknown. About 3 percent of the population has scoliosis, and girls are more often affected than boys. While it is, for the most part, a mild condition which requires no treatment, in more severe cases a back brace or surgery may be required (x).

The spine allows the torso to bend and twist, and the spine curves forward and backward naturally, acting like shock absorbers. Normal curves range from 20-50 degrees. However, side-to-side curves are not normal and any curve above 10 degrees is called scoliosis (x).

Mild scoliosis may not be visible just by looking at the back, but it can still cause pain. If you are experiencing back pain, your doctor may recommend an x-ray of the backbone to determine the cause (x).

Treatment for mild scoliosis includes physical therapy exercises, chiropractic and other things such as the use of an inversion table for children, young adults and adults. A back brace or surgery may be required for more serious cases (x). Additionally, diet and supplementation can help to manage the symptoms.

Symptoms of Scoliosis

The symptoms of scoliosis will depend on the severity of the spinal curvature. For most, the curve is mild and there are no symptoms. As the curve becomes more pronounced, the shoulders may be uneven, or the head may not appear to be centered over the body. One hip might be higher than the other or jut out. The ribs may stick out or the arms may appear to be different lengths. There might be a bump in the low back where the bones stick out (x).

Spine Curvature

With scoliosis, the spine may curve to the left, the right or both. Levoscoliosis is the term that describes when the spine curves toward the left. Dextroscoliosis means the curve goes to the right in the shape of the letter C. Scoliosis usually occurs in the lower back or lumbar spine but it may also affect the thoracic spine or middle back. It is also possible for the spine to make both a left and right curve, making an S shape. Cervical scoliosis or scoliosis in the neck is rare, but can be difficult to treat (x).

An excessive curve in the low back is lumbar lordosis and an excessive curve in the middle back is kyphosis. Because the spine often twists in three dimensions, either or both of these conditions can accompany scoliosis.

In a child, an abnormally curved spine may cause the ribs to look rotated, and if the child bends over, one side of the ribs may appear elevated. Another indicator is uneven shoulders, or a single, protruding shoulder blade. A hump on one side of the back is another potential sign of a curved spine in a child (x).

Spinal stenosis is another condition that affects the spine, but it is different than scoliosis. Spinal stenosis means that the spinal canal narrows, putting pressure on the nerves. It is most common in the neck and lower back (x).

Spinal rotation often accompanies scoliosis, meaning the vertebrae not only curve to the side, but also twist. The early stages of scoliosis do not usually present any symptoms, but more serious problems may develop if the problem continues to progress untreated.

Pain

Pain is a common symptom of scoliosis, and nerve pain is also possible. If the spine puts pressure on the stomach, the individual may feel full after not eating very much. Someone with scoliosis may have difficulty walking or standing up straight. It is also possible to lose height, especially among older adults. Fatigue is common, and the person may have difficulty breathing or feel short of breath. Bone spurs sometimes form on the joints in the spine and may cause arthritis (x).

Back pain is the most common symptom of adult scoliosis and doctors frequently prescribe exercises and stretching for pain relief. This helps to keep the muscles and joints strong and flexible and prevent further degeneration. Because scoliosis can cause uneven muscle development, a muscle re-educational exercise involves bending further in the direction your spine is already curving. This causes your muscles to pull back and shorten, helping to retrain them. The yoga poses Cat and Cow are two other exercises that can also help with pain management for scoliosis. Child’s Pose is another good yoga stretch to relieve pain in back. Water therapy is another good treatment option because the buoyancy places less stress on the joints. Some people may find that massage also helps to loosen soft tissue and relax tight muscles (x).

Tertiary Symptoms

Scoliosis can trigger muscle spasms in the thoracic area, causing pain in the mid back. Some experience difficulty sitting or standing, and balance may be affected. In very severe cases, lung or heart function may be affected as well (x).

Scoliosis Symptoms

Causes of Scoliosis

In most cases of scoliosis, the cause is idiopathic, but there is evidence that the condition runs in families. Other spinal conditions, such as kyphosis (or hunchback), is also often hereditary (x).

Underlying Syndromes

Besides muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy, other potential causes of scoliosis include Rett syndrome, neurofibromastosis and spina bifida. Spina bifida is a birth defect in which the bones of the spine don’t fully close, causing a gap. This means that the spinal cord itself does not form correctly. While mild spina bifida (spina bifida occulta) may not create any disabilities, more severe cases can cause scoliosis and kyphosis, as well as other problems (x).

Another rare but potential cause of scoliosis is syringomyelia, in which a cyst develops in the spinal cord. If the cyst enlarges, it can cause several problems, including syrinx scoliosis, tumors or damage to the spinal cord. Surgery may be necessary to correct the problem (x).

Lumbar lordosis happens most commonly in children, but obesity, rickets, arthritis, certain diseases like osteochondropathy, a sedentary lifestyle and injuries may also cause this problem. If you are sedentary, getting more exercise can help fix a curve in the lower back. Stretching is also key, and be sure to hit all the related muscle groups — the back, abdominals, hip flexors and gluteals (x).

Birth Defect

This refers to physical or medical problems present at the time of birth. A newborn may present with a spinal curve.

Age

Due to aging, musculature and skeletal integrity weakens, which means that the body cannot always hold itself in the correct alignment. This can result in the spine curving.

Spinal Tumor

Spinal tumors are very hard to diagnose due to location and wide variety of symptoms. One symptom of a spinal tumor is the creation of a spinal curve, and scoliosis (x).

Infections and Injury

Some rare types of scoliosis can be caused by infections or injury to the spine.

Treatment for Scoliosis

Exercise

While exercises that strengthen the core can help alleviate back pain, certain exercises may do more harm than good, including back bends, bending your neck very far forward or twisting the middle back. High intensity, high contact or highly competitive sports can put extra strain on the spine and worsen the problem. Exercise that requires a lot of jumping, such as gymnastics and ballet, can also exacerbate scoliosis. Distance running, especially on hard surfaces, can compress the spine, compounding the problem. Heavy weightlifting may also compress the spine and should be avoided. Light to medium weights or kettle bells are best for those with scoliosis (x).

Back Brace

Back braces can be used to correct a spinal curvature, especially when it is present during adolescence.

Surgery

More often than not, scoliosis can be corrected or managed without surgery. But even in cases where intervention is warranted, exercises or a brace can help correct the abnormal curve. However, if the curvature continues to worsen and surgery is needed, the vertebrae may be fused or rods may be anchored to the spine to correct or maintain the curve. In children, this surgery will be repeated every six months to a year so that the rods keep up with the child’s growth. Once the child approaches physical maturity, a fusion is usually performed (x).

Healthy Diet

Dietary supplements are often ideal for those with scoliosis. Vitamin D3 supports strong bones and muscles, and it also helps to prevent deficiencies of other vitamins that may be a contributing factor to the development of scoliosis. There are also many herbs that can help alleviate the pain that often accompanies scoliosis, including curcumin, ginger, arnica, Boswellia serrata, oregano, fish oil and MSM.

Supplements for Scoliosis

Curcumin

Curcumin is the active ingredient in the spice turmeric and it has been used for thousands of years for medicinal purposes by practitioners of Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine. It is an anti-inflammatory that has been used to effectively treat chronic back pain in adults with scoliosis (x). A common dose is 1,000 mg, taken once per day.

Oregano

This is another herbal remedy that has been used for centuries for pain relief. It also increases circulation and suppresses inflammation. For oregano extract powder, take 500 mg once to three times daily.

Vitamin D3

For most cases of scoliosis, the cause is unknown, but low bone mineral density and scoliosis have been highly correlated (x, x). Vitamin D3 is essential for calcium absorption, and it also is needed for healthy muscles, and overall health (x). Because vitamin D is used by the body to absorb other vitamins, a deficiency can result in other vitamin deficiencies. Take one softgel of vitamin D3 with a meal once per day (x).

Fish Oil

Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids which are essential for overall health. They also help reduce pain and inflammation in the body (x). Take one or two fish oil softgels two to three times daily (x).

Methysulfonylmethane (MSM)

This is a bio-available form of sulfur that reduces inflammation, offering natural pain relief (x). Take 1,000-1,300 mg of MSM powder up to four times daily. Be sure to take it with meals (x).

Ginger

Ginger is a powerful anti-inflammatory that has been used medicinally for millennia, and has been shown in modern studies to offer pain relief. Taking ginger may also help avoid side effects of conventional painkillers, such as stomach disorders (x). Take 1,000 mg once daily with plenty of water, or as directed by your doctor (x).

Arnica 

Arnica offers pain relief and helps alleviate inflammation (x). It should never be taken internally, but applied to the skin. To use, dissolve a teaspoon or two of arnica extract in 50 ml of water. Dampen a cotton cloth with the mixture and apply to the affected area. Do not use on broken skin. It is possible to have an allergic reaction to arnica, so if you have sensitivities to the sunflower family including dandelions, marigolds and daisies, you may prefer not to use arnica (x).

Boswellia Serrata 

Boswellia serrata is also known by the name of frankincense, and it has long been used as a traditional remedy to treat pain, inflammation and other complaints. It has been proven in studies to reduce pain and inflammation and improve flexibility (x). A common dose is 450 mg taken twice daily (x).

The Bottom Line

Scoliosis is an abnormal lateral curve of the spine that most commonly strikes adolescents, and girls in particular. For most people, the condition is mild and needs no treatment. However, regular exercise, stretching and supplements such as vitamin D and fish oil can help muscles and bones grow properly, while herbs like ginger, bromelain and curcumin can help with pain management.

About the author

Susan Seabury


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