Scoliosis is twisting and curvature of the spine, which often starts in childhood or puberty, and can affect appearance and movement.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2023

What is scoliosis?

Scoliosis twists and rotates the vertebrae in your back, gradually pulling your spine into an ‘S’ or ‘C’ position.

There are four main types of scoliosis:

  • Congenital – occurring before birth
  • Early onset – affecting young children
  • Adolescent idiopathic – affecting older children and teenagers
  • Degenerative or de novo (new) – affecting adults

Scoliosis can happen at any age, but the majority of cases are diagnosed between the ages of nine and 14. It progresses more rapidly in girls. In four out of five cases, there’s no known reason for scoliosis of the spine – this is called idiopathic scoliosis.

If you have mild scoliosis, you probably won’t need treatment. However, if curvature of the spine continues, it may become painful, causing noticeable changes to your spine and posture. In very severe cases, scoliosis can cause disability and disfigurement, as well as breathing and heart problems.

If diagnosed early enough, scoliosis can be successfully treated, often without scoliosis surgery.

How to tell if you have scoliosis

It’s very difficult to spot spinal changes, especially as they happen very gradually. Changes in your spine may be highlighted by:

  • An inability to stand straight
  • A rounded or humped back
  • Uneven shoulders
  • Hip, waist or ribs pushed out to one side
  • Head leaning towards one side
  • One leg appearing shorter than the other

As curvature of the spine develops, scoliosis may trigger pain in your back.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

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Diagnosis and tests for scoliosis

If you’re concerned that you (or your child) may have scoliosis, make an appointment to see your GP.

Your GP will examine your back and, if required, send you for a spinal X-ray. If scoliosis of the spine is detected, your GP may recommend treatment or refer you to a consultant.

Common treatments for scoliosis

The treatment your consultant recommends will vary according to your age and the severity of the curvature of your spine.

Non-surgical treatments for scoliosis include:

  • Routine monitoring
  • Physiotherapy, including special scoliosis exercises
  • Wearing a cast or brace to prevent the curve increasing (often recommended for children awaiting scoliosis surgery)
  • Pain relief, including painkillers and spinal injections

Scoliosis surgery

Congenital scoliosis

Very young children rarely require surgery. The curve may be naturally corrected as they grow or minimised by a plaster cast or brace.

Early onset scoliosis

Up until the age of about 10, children can have rods inserted into their spine to prevent the curve increasing. Alternatively, a plaster cast or brace may be recommended.

Adolescent idiopathic scoliosis

Once an older child or teenager has stopped growing, your consultant may recommend a spinal fusion. This major surgical procedure straightens the spine using metal rods and bone from elsewhere in the body.

Degenerative or de novo scoliosis

Surgery is usually only recommended for adults with severe and deforming degenerative scoliosis. This operation can correct curvature of your spine, with rods implanted to keep your spine straight.