Scoliosis is the abnormal twisting and curvature of the spine.

Most people with scoliosis notice a change in the appearance of their shoulders, chest or hips.

Typical signs include:

  • one shoulder being higher than the other
  • one shoulder or hip being more prominent than the other
  • a prominent ribcage
  • clothes not hanging properly
  • a tendency to lean to one side

Most cases of scoliosis do not cause back pain, particularly those affecting children. However, it can become painful if the curvature of the spine worsens.

Seeking medical advice

If you or your child have signs of scoliosis, make an appointment to see your GP. They can examine your back and can refer you for an X-ray for confirmation.

If you or your child are diagnosed with scoliosis, it's important to see a scoliosis specialist to talk about treatment options.

Read more about diagnosing scoliosis.

What causes scoliosis?

In around eight out of every 10 cases, a cause for scoliosis is not found. This is known as idiopathic scoliosis.

A small number of cases are caused by other medical conditions, including:

Rarely, babies can be born with scoliosis, as a result of a problem with the development of the spine in the womb.

In adults, the condition can be the result of gradual degeneration of the spine or previously undiagnosed scoliosis that worsens over time.

Read more about the causes of scoliosis.

Who is affected

Scoliosis was once thought of as a childhood condition. However, it affects adults as well.

It can develop at any age, but is most common in children aged 10-15. In the UK, around three or four in every 1,000 children need treatment for scoliosis.

It's more common in females than males.

How scoliosis is treated

Treatment for scoliosis depends on your age and how severe it is.

In very young children, treatment is not always necessary because the curvature of the spine may improve naturally as they get older. In older children and adults, scoliosis is unlikely to improve without treatment and may get progressively worse.

A scoliosis specialist should discuss with you the different options available. In children, the main options are:

  • a back brace worn until they stop growing, to prevent the spine from curving further
  • an operation to insert adjustable metal rods in the back to stabilise the spine – these are then lengthened as your child grows
  • surgery to straighten their spine using metal rods, screws, hooks, wires and bone grafts – this is only done once they have passed the adolescent growth spurt

In adults, treatment primarily aims to relieve any pain. Non-surgical options, such as painkillers and exercises are often tried first, with surgery used for severe curves or pain resistant to other methods.

Read more about treating scoliosis in children and treating scoliosis in adults.

Further problems

Scoliosis can sometimes lead to further emotional and physical problems.

Having a visibly curved spine or wearing a back brace can cause problems related to body image, self-esteem and overall quality of life.

If this is a problem for you or your child, you may find it useful to contact a scoliosis support group, such as Scoliosis Association UK. These groups are a good source of information and support for people with scoliosis.

In rare cases, scoliosis can lead to physical problems if it's severe. For example, significant curvature of the spine can sometimes put increased pressure on the heart and lungs.

Read more about the possible complications of scoliosis.

Page last reviewed: 29/01/2015

Next review due: 29/01/2017