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June is Scoliosis Awareness Month: Get the Facts

Green and black text reading June is Scoliosis Awareness Month on a light green background with a green ribbon.Scoliosis is a common condition, affecting between six and nine million people in the United States alone. Although it can affect anyone of any age, most new diagnoses are among young people between the ages of 10-15, in large part thanks to screenings of young adolescents. 

To increase awareness of scoliosis and increase access to treatment, the Scoliosis Research Society designated the month of June as Scoliosis Awareness Month. South Island Orthopedics is one of Long Island’s leading orthopedic practices and home to a team of experts committed to the most advanced treatments and techniques in spine health. We ensure patients of all ages have access to the treatment and support they need in our friendly, home-like environment.

Learn More About Spinal Conditions During Scoliosis Awareness Month

Although you may have heard the term before, you might be wondering, “What is Scoliosis?” In the simplest terms, scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine

A normal, healthy spine has natural curves that help maintain the body’s proper alignment and absorb stress during movement. Without these curves, which are found in the neck, lower back, and pelvic region, it would be difficult or impossible to bend or rotate. Scoliosis means the spine bends to either side in a C or an S shape rather than curving from front to back. 

What Causes Scoliosis?

Doctors classify scoliosis into three types: idiopathic, congenital, and neuromuscular. 

Idiopathic scoliosis is the most common, responsible for 80% of diagnoses. Essentially, this means there is no immediate assignable cause for the spinal curvature. This form is typically diagnosed during puberty. There may be a genetic component to idiopathic scoliosis as well since in 30% of cases there is a family history of the condition.

Congenital scoliosis is present at birth. It’s caused by one or more vertebrae forming improperly while in utero, creating a spinal anomaly. This can lead to curvature and other spinal deformities, which are usually diagnosed early on. 

The extent of the curvature and how fast it progresses, if at all, is determined by the location and shape of the malformed vertebrae—and in some cases, the anomaly is so slight that there is no need for intervention. 

Neuromuscular scoliosis develops in association with another neurological or muscular condition. Cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, spinal muscle atrophy, and spinal trauma are all primary conditions that can lead to spinal curves. This type is the most aggressive, causes the most severe curvatures, and generally requires surgical intervention. 

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How is Scoliosis Treated?

 Young teen girl holds a soccer ball on the field in front of a goal. The severity of scoliosis is measured by degrees: A curvature of less than 15 degrees is considered minor and may not require treatment. Curvatures of 20-40 degrees are considered moderate and the most likely to be treated with a back brace. Severe curvatures, especially those over 50 degrees, require surgery to prevent long-term complications.

Early detection and intervention are key to treatment. Among the goals of Scoliosis Awareness Month is increasing patient access to screening and building awareness of the signs of the disease. This includes early detection and bracing, which in the majority of cases prevents the need for surgical interventions. 

Bracing is the most common treatment option among adolescents with moderate spinal curvatures (defined as those with cures between 20 and 40 degrees). A study by the Scoliosis Research Society found that adolescents who wore back braces were significantly less likely to require corrective surgery than those who did not wear braces. Of the 242 participants in the study, 72% of those who wore a brace for the recommended 18 hours a day were able to avoid surgery, compared to only 48% of those who didn’t use a brace. 

Most children wear a brace to correct their spinal curves until their bones stop growing. Braces don’t straighten the spine but rather slow or stop it from curving any further. In the majority of cases, they eliminate the need for corrective surgery. 

Adults do not benefit from bracing since their bones have finished growing. Instead, most adults undergo physical therapy and pain management to strengthen their muscles and increase function while reducing discomfort. 

However, left untreated, scoliosis can contribute to severe disc degeneration in both children and adults. Spinal fusion surgery to fuse vertebrae together after straightening the spine with a metal rod is the most common treatment option. Some adults may also have back surgery to create extra room for nerves to move within narrowed vertebrae. 

What are the Signs and Symptoms?

A doctor examines a young girl’s spine for scoliosis. Scoliosis Awareness Month aims to increase the number of scoliosis screenings among young people. Because scoliosis can be treated while a child is still growing by using a brace, the earlier spinal curvatures are detected, the better.

Children are typically screened for scoliosis by their pediatricians or during school clinics. The Scoliosis Research Society recommends girls be screened at ages 10 and 12 (or in grades five and seven) and boys be screened at age 12 or 13 (or in grades eight or nine.) If a health care provider believes further evaluation is needed, you may receive a referral to a pediatric orthopedic specialist.

However, there are signs to watch for in either yourself or a child. Although back pain or discomfort is rare, especially in mild cases, there can be some visible indications. If you spot any of the following signs, make an appointment for a more in-depth examination. 

Signs to watch for include:

  • The spine appears rotated.
  • The shoulder blades appear uneven, with one higher than the other or sticking out further than the other.
  • The hips appear uneven, with one higher than the other or sticking out further than the other.
  • The two sides of the back appear at different heights when bent over.
  • The head does not appear centered with the rest of the body.
  • The ribs appear more pushed out than normal.
  • The arms do not or cannot hang straight down the sides of the body. 
  • The entire body appears to lean to one side.
  • The reduced space for lung expansion causes difficulty breathing or taking deep breaths. 
  • There are changes to the appearance of the skin over the spine, such as discoloration, patches of hair, or dimples 
  • There is ongoing back pain or discomfort.

Keep in mind that scoliosis is not caused by a back injury. If you or your child has been injured, and you have any of the above signs and symptoms, seek immediate medical attention. 

Living a Full Life With Scoliosis

Many adolescents—and their parents—have concerns about what a diagnosis means for their lives and whether it will impede their usual activities. 

The good news is that wearing a back brace doesn’t typically interfere with regular activities or sports. In fact, exercise and sports are actually a pivotal part of any treatment plan. Playing sports offers several benefits, including:

  • Keeping muscles loose and limber, preventing stiffness.
  • Strengthening core muscles to give the spine more support.
  • Supporting overall wellness and good health.
  • Improving self-esteem and self-confidence. 

Orthopedic specialists recommend specific sports for young people with scoliosis, including:

  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Soccer
  • Yoga

Sports that should be avoided or limited include those that work one side of the spine more than the other, such as racquet sports like tennis, or compress the spine with hard landings, like trampoline, gymnastics, or cheer. 

And although some parents may worry about backpacks, they aren’t a concern when it comes to spine curvatures. Carrying a heavy backpack isn’t necessarily good for posture and back health, but it doesn’t cause or worsen scoliosis. 

Adults are more likely to have pain that disrupts their activities. Some may receive steroid injections to reduce discomfort, in addition to physical therapy and/or surgery. 

Get Treatment for Scoliosis At South Island Orthopedics

Although many adolescents are treated using an observational approach, meaning their provider monitors the spine while the patient is still growing for changes that require intervention, not treating a moderate to severe case can have significant consequences. 

Allowing a spinal curvature to worsen without treatment can increase pain and ultimately cause deformity that significantly affects an individual’s appearance. Uneven shoulders and hips, a rib cage that sticks out, and an inability to maintain proper posture are all noticeable effects of untreated curvatures.

In extreme cases, when left untreated, scoliosis can lead to heart and respiratory conditions. The heart has to work harder to pump blood when breathing is impeded, increasing the risk of cardiac episodes.

We Are Here to Help

South Island Orthopedics has the expertise to help adults and children with scoliosis live full, pain-free lives. Beginning in August 2021, spine specialist Franklin Lee, M.D. is joining the practice, bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience in spinal conditions to our already exceptional team of providers. In anticipation of his arrival, we’re already scheduling appointments for consultations with him beginning in August. You can also book appointments with any of our other providers as soon as today.

With two convenient locations in Cedarhurst and Woodbury, NY, families from all over Long Island turn to SIO for the highest-quality orthopedic care. If you’re concerned about your child’s spine, don’t hesitate to request an appointment or call the Woodbury office at 516-364-0070 or the Cedarhurst office at 516-295-0111. 

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