Scoliosis and Your Child: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Published on 
November 15, 2013

By Tracy Zaslow, MD, Medical Director, Children’s Orthopaedic Center (COC) Sports Medicine and Concussion Programs and Allison Farfel, premed student and mentee of Dr. Zaslow.

Our spines hold our bodies upright, allowing us to run, jump and play the sports we love. You may have noticed that, viewed from the side, our backs are not completely flat; they curve naturally in and out. However, a medical condition known as scoliosis—from the Greek word skolios, meaning “crooked”—causes the spine to curve sideways rather than extending straight down the middle of the back, sometimes forming what looks like a “C” or an “S” shape.

Scoliosis is a common condition that can affect people of all ages. The most common type is idiopathic scoliosis, and its onset often coincides with puberty and the adolescent growth spurt. Although the causes of idiopathic scoliosis remain unknown, it appears to be more common in girls than in boys and has been observed to run in families.

What is Scoliosis?Spine

Symptoms and Treatment of Scoliosis

The symptoms of scoliosis can range from mild to severe and may include:

  • Uneven shoulders or hips
  • One pant leg shorter than the other
  • Back pain or discomfort during physical activities
  • In severe cases, trouble breathing as a result of reduced lung space

A doctor evaluates a spinal curvature by observing your child bending forward to reach for his or her toes. An X-ray might be used to confirm the doctor’s diagnosis and to measure the degree of your child’s spinal curve. Treatment depends on many factors, including:

  • Child’s age
  • Child’s stage of development (i.e., whether he or she is still growing)
  • Location of the curve
  • Degree of the curve

In mild cases of scoliosis, treatment is probably unnecessary, although check-ups should be done regularly to ensure the condition does not get worse. In more moderate cases, the doctor may suggest the use of a brace; though a brace will not correct existing curvature, it promotes proper growth and minimizes any increases in the curve. In more severe cases, the doctor may determine that an operation is necessary. The surgery involves the fusion of vertebrae (the small bones that make up the spine) and the placement of metal rods to maintain the alignment of the back. 

Scoliosis and Young Athletes

A young athlete with scoliosis should talk to his or her doctor about how to train and play sports safely. Usually, idiopathic scoliosis does not require any change in physical activity; exercise and participation in sports are encouraged. Exercise helps your young athlete strengthen the trunk muscles required to hold the body upright and increase flexibility. If your child needs spinal surgery, physical activity will be restricted for up to one year, but most young athletes return to their favorite sports after recovery. (See this letter written by a young athlete whose remarkable outlook and recovery from spinal surgery has been an inspiration.)

Understanding scoliosis and knowing what to expect will help prepare you and your child. With proper care, young athletes will likely be able to continue to play the sports they enjoy.