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When viewed from front or back, a healthy spine is completely straight (left); in a patient with scoliosis (right), the spine can be seen to curve laterally.

Scoliosis is a lateral (sideways) curvature of the spine that can be present at birth or develop later in childhood, often during adolescence. Most cases of scoliosis are mild and treatable, but the musculoskeletal disorder can worsen over time, with progression especially likely to happen during growth spurts that occur during adolescence. Scoliosis tends to runs in families, and girls are more likely than boys to suffer from the disorder.

The healthy spine has a natural front-to-back curve to it, but in a patient with scoliosis a portion of the spine curves sideways, causing uneven distribution of weight and spinal stress, which can become disabling and disfiguring.

The abnormal curve of the spine is usually S- or C-shaped, and the severity of the curve pattern is measured in degrees. The larger the degree and the younger the patient, the more likely the scoliosis will get worse and need treatment. (See Diagnosing and Treating Scoliosis.) The four pattern types of scoliosis are named for their location within the spine: thoracic, lumbar, thoracolumbar, or multiple curves.

What Causes Scoliosis?
Most cases of scoliosis are idiopathic, meaning it’s not known what causes them. But sometimes the causes can be congenital, neuromuscular, or associated with known syndromes (such as Neurofibromatosis). Congenital scoliosis is a birth defect in which the spine develops abnormally in utero and can be identified at an early age. Neuromuscular scoliosis is scoliosis caused by disorders such as cerebral palsy, spinal cord trauma, muscular dystrophy, spinal muscular atrophy, and spina bifida. These cases are often severe and require surgery. Idiopathic adolescent scoliosis refers to spinal curvature that develops in youngsters with no known cause. Progression of adolescent idiopathic scoliosis usually subsides after the child stops growing, but in some cases surveillance may still be necessary.

Reviewed by Ali Baaj, M.D.
Last reviewed/last updated: August 2015
Illustrations by Thom Graves, CMI