Detecting scoliosis can be tricky.
Symptoms are often subtle during the early stages, which can make them easy to dismiss.
In children, developing scoliosis often goes unnoticed until they reach adolescence and enter a rapid growth phase. In adults, it can be even harder to spot. One study found that the condition remained undetected in 67% of adult back-pain patients with scoliosis — particularly when the spinal curvature was mild. Even patients with moderate to severe curvature went undiagnosed more than 10% of the time.
Knowing what to look for can make you more alert to the slight changes that can signal an abnormal curve in the spine. Catching the defect in its early stages provides more time to correct the problem before it becomes severe.
Keep in mind, however, that scoliosis is a complex condition that should only be diagnosed by a medical expert. An accurate diagnosis typically requires a spinal x-ray.
Below are the five most common signs and symptoms of scoliosis:
1. Family History of Scoliosis
The chances of developing scoliosis are — to some degree — greater if a sibling, parent, or grandparent has it. Around three in 10 patients with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis have a family history of the condition, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Additional research has shown that of all the factors related to the development of scoliosis, genetics account for approximately 38%.
There are also several conditions that can increase the odds of scoliosis:
- A significant trauma or defect at birth, such as muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy
- Unusually rapid growth spurts
- Trauma experienced during childhood
2. Abnormal Posture
The earliest visible signs of scoliosis can typically be observed in one’s posture. As the spine grows along its curve, it thrusts the shoulders, waist, and hips out of alignment. While the changes can be subtle, a lack of symmetry in posture often appears before the spinal curve itself becomes apparent.
Visible warning signs of scoliosis include:
- Tilted eye line
- Uneven shoulders
- One shoulder blade sticks out
- One hip appears higher or more pronounced
- Tilted rib cage
- Mid-ear out of alignment with tip of shoulder (when viewed from the side)
- Center of eyes not horizontally aligned with center of hips
- Body leans to one side
- One leg appears shorter than the other
- Slight limp when walking
- Ribs stick out during a full forward bend
It is important to note that abnormal posture is merely one of the symptoms of scoliosis — not the cause. While we don’t know what causes the initial scoliosis defect, we do know that a curve’s progression occurs because the brain doesn’t recognize that the body’s posture is out of alignment. As a result, it fails direct the muscles to correct the spinal curvature and the spine continues to grow abnormally.
3. Ill-Fitting Clothes
Subtle changes in posture can make clothes appear ill-fitting or asymmetrical. For example, a dropped shoulder or tilted hips often cause one shirt sleeve or pant leg to hang lower than the other. The more severe the curves become, the more difficult it is to find clothes that fit properly.
Look for uneven:
- Shirt sleeves
- Pant legs
4. Back Pain
In most cases, scoliosis doesn’t limit movement or cause noticeable back pain until the curves become severe. This is part of the reason why scoliosis is so often overlooked.
That said, unexplained backaches could be a symptom of scoliosis — especially if they persist. As the spine curves, it places pressure on the nerves and sometimes the entire spinal cord. This can cause lower back pain, weakness, numbness, or pain in the lower extremities.
Feeling fatigued after long periods of sitting or standing can also indicate scoliosis. The more pronounced the curves become, the harder the surrounding muscles have to work to keep the body aligned and balanced. This causes them to wear out more easily. Additionally, severe scoliosis can put pressure on the chest cavity, eventually restricting the ability to breathe, which can cause chronic fatigue.
If you notice any symptoms of scoliosis that concern you, it is best to see a doctor. Early detection can make a big difference in treatment outcomes.
A scoliosis diagnosis doesn’t have to end in surgery. About 80% of cases are not highly progressive and will not cause severe deformity. And while it is common for doctors to recommend spinal fusion surgery in severe cases, there are many non-surgical scoliosis treatment options available.
Revolutionary treatments, such as active resistance therapy using the ScoliSMART Activity Suit (especially when combined with nutritional support and other techniques), have stabilized or reduced curvature in many scoliosis patients.
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