Ask the Expert: What is Scoliosis?

By: Dene Johnson

April 19, 2019

Care giver accessing young patient regarding scoliosis

Posture is important, but for those children diagnosed with scoliosis (spinal curvature) it can be a difficult issue. The Washoe County School District Student Health Services Department screens 7th grade students for scoliosis as growth spurts often reveal the condition and, if diagnosed early, scoliosis can stop progressing. We asked Michael Elliott, MD, head of the Department of Pediatric Orthopedics and Scoliosis to answer some frequently asked questions about scoliosis.

What is scoliosis?

There are many types of scoliosis: early onset (occurs before age 10), congenital scoliosis is when the bones of the spine do not form correctly, neuromuscular scoliosis which is due to children’s neurologic and muscle disease, and the most common is Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis. The term “idiopathic “ means the exact cause is unknown, although we do know it runs in families. This type of scoliosis occurs in 2-3 percent of adolescents and is mainly seen during their growth spurt. This is why middle school screenings are recommended. Both genders get scoliosis but girls are 8 times more likely to have their curves progress and become larger.

What are the signs that my child may have scoliosis?

A few signs for parents to watch for are:
  • One shoulder might be higher than the other.
  • One leg may seem longer.
  • A hip may be higher or look more prominent.
  • The waist may not look the same from side to side (asymmetry).
  • The trunk or rib cage may be more prominent on one side or shifted.
  • When they bend forward they may have a bump on their back.

How is scoliosis diagnosed?

It can be noticed by a pediatrician at a physical, school screening nurse, PE teacher or parents. Once the curve is suspected the child is usually referred to a pediatric orthopedic surgeon scoliosis expertise. At the initial visit the doctor will perform a thorough physical including a complete neurologic exam to assess the amount of curvature. Once the exam is completed the physician will determine if a spinal x-ray is needed. The curve on the x-ray is measured utilizing the cobb angle (a measurement in degrees) which helps guide the treatment.

What are common treatments for scoliosis?

The treatment depends on the size of the spinal curve and the amount of growth the child has remaining. An x-ray of the child’s hand is used to determine the amount of growth remaining. This allows the determination of the child’s bone age, and based on the hands growth plates it can determined if the child is in their rapid phase of growth. Treatments include:
  • Observation - For curves less than 20-25 degrees. This entails visits every 6-9 months with a repeat scoliosis x-ray. Since scoliosis curves increase only 1-2 degrees per month, and variations in measurements can be 3-5 degrees, an x-ray is not recommended before 6 months. If the curve remains less than 25 degrees the child is followed until their growth is completed (usually age 16-18).

  • Progressing Curve - If growth is finished and the curve is less than 40 degrees, the risk of more curvature into adulthood is small. If growth is completed and the curve is over 45 degrees, the child is followed for several years as these curves can progress into adulthood. If the patient is still growing and the curve has progressed greater than 25 degrees but still in the non-operative range (less than 45-50 degrees) bracing is used to stop the progression of the curve.

  • Bracing - Indicated for curves over 25 degrees but less than 45 degrees. If a brace is required you will be referred to an orthotist (bracing specialist). The orthotist assesses your child, reviews the x-ray and then fits the brace. (Having a brace made usually takes 2-3 weeks.) Once the brace is fit, your child will visit the scoliosis specialist for an x-ray in the brace to ensure it fits correctly. The primary goal of bracing is to halt progression of the curve and prevent the need for surgery. The brace must be worn for about 16 hours per day to be effective. In a recent bracing study 72% of the patients who wore their braces as prescribed prevented the need for surgery compared to the group who did not wear their brace.

  • Surgery: When a curve reaches 45-50 degrees, and a child is still growing, surgery is usually recommended because the curve is likely to continue progress. If a curve is over 50 degrees and the child is done growing surgery also may be recommended. This is because when curves are over 50 degrees they tend to increase 1-2 degrees per year for the rest of your life. As curves get larger the amount of lung function tends to decrease which could cause breathing problems later in life. The goals of surgery are to stop the progression of the curve and safely correct any misalignment. This is accomplished by attaching implants (rods, screws, hooks and bands) to the spine. Bone graft is then placed around the implants to encourage the spine to fuse (grow together). This then forms a solid column of bone with metal rods in place, preventing the curve from changing. Most patients are back to their regular sports and activities six months post surgery.


    • Previous Article

    A Day in the Life of a Child Life Specialist

    March is Child Life Month, meaning this is the perfect time to ask: What exactly does a Child Life Specialist do? To find out, we “virtually” tagged along with one for a day. This is what a typical day looks like in this important role....
    Read More
    • Next Article

    Not a Fall Sports Fan? Ways to Keep Kids Active

    The mornings are crisp and it’s about time to pull out those scarves and boots, so what does that mean? Football, baby! But not all kids are fans of fall sports. Elaina Lantrip, an advanced practitioner with Renown Pediatrics talks about...
    Read More