Scoliosis refers to a curve of the spine when viewing the body from the front or back. As its name implies, Adult Scoliosis (AS) occurs after skeletal maturity which is generally 18 years of age. There are two types of adult scoliosis: 1) That which occurs in early adulthood from age 18 to age 40 or 50. This is usually Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis that was present during youth and continues into adulthood. Usually, if curves are less than 50 degrees at the end of growth there is little chance that the curves will progress as a person ages. 2) Scoliosis that occurs later in life generally in patients older than 50. This is usually the result of wear and tear or degeneration of the spine and the curves are rarely greater than 50 degrees.
Both types of AS may be associated with progressive degenerative changes in the spine as a person ages leading to back pain and in some cases spinal stenosis. Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the canal through which the nerves pass and can lead to pain in the lower extremities with some numbness, tingling or weakness but usually not paralysis.
Adult Scoliosis Diagnosis
AS is diagnosed by examining a patient and noting a curve when viewing the patient from the front or back. The sized of curvature is confirmed by x-rays which are taken with the patient standing and then measuring the curve.
Treatment of AS depends upon whether a patient has pain. Patients without pain generally require no treatment other than follow-up x-rays every year or two. Patients that have low back pain severe enough to require treatment are usually treated with a non-steroidal medicine such as ibuprofen or naproxen, a walking program, a light exercise program, physical therapy and occasional bracing. Bracing in this population decreases motion in the spine thereby decreasing back pain but will not correct the curve. Patients with lower extremity pain require a MRI to confirm the diagnosis of stenosis. Patients whose lower extremity pain is from stenosis are initially treated with oral medication and if no relief is obtained an Epidural Steroid Injection (ESI). This involves placement of steroids around the irritated nerves under x-ray control to decrease inflammation and thereby decrease lower extremity pain.
Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis
Scoliosis refers to a curve of the spine when viewing the body from the front or back. Idiopathic refers to the fact that we as doctors do not know the exact cause of this condition. Adolescent refers to the occurrence of this condition in patients from 12-18 years of age. Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis (AIS) tends to run in families and is defined by a curve that measures 10 degrees or more. AIS occurs 5 times more commonly in females than males. Approximately 1 in a 100 people will have a curve of 10 degrees but only 1 in 1000 people will have a curve progress to 25 degrees which is the degree magnitude that requires treatment. In general, patients who are diagnosed at an early age or who have a large curve at the time of diagnosis are at increased risk for curve progression which may require treatment. AIS is not associated with spinal pain or any neurologic problems such as numbness, tingling or weakness.
Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis Diagnosis
The diagnosis of AIS is suggested on physical exam by noting a spine that is not straight particularly when the patient bends forward (Adam’s forward bending test). The diagnosis is confirmed by obtaining a standing xray of the entire spine from the front and side and noting a spine that is not straight and has a curve of least 10 degrees.
Treatment of AIS depends upon the severity of the curve and the age of the patient. In general, curves of less than 25 degrees are watched closely by the doctor and x-rays are obtained every 4 months to make sure that the curve is not worsening. Shielding the pelvic area with lead and having the x-ray beam enter the body from the back help protect the reproductive organs of the patient. If a curve progresses past 25 degrees and the patient has at least 1.5 years of growth remaining, then the patient is treated with a brace designed to hold the curve in a partially corrected positioned until growth has finished. A patient’s stage of growth may by estimated by looking at the calcification of the iliac apophysis on the scoliosis x-ray (Risser sign). If a growing patient’s curvature continues to progress despite bracing and exceeds 40 degrees, then surgery may be indicated. However, if a curve is 40 degrees at the end of growth then close observation rather than surgery is usually indicated.
Tim E. Budorick, M.D. FAWBJ, Abbott Byrd III, M.D. FAWBJ, FACS and David M. Clifford, M.D. FAWBJ practice at the Virginia Spine and Scoliosis Center which is a division of Wisconsin Bone and Joint with offices in Norfolk, Bartlett, Buffalo Grove, and Chesapeake, Virginia.