Adult scoliosis is the diagnosis given to scoliosis cases which are discovered in individuals over 18.
What is adult scoliosis?
There are two main types of adult scoliosis. Pre-existing adult scoliosis is essentially a case of scoliosis which is continuing from an earlier age (usually adolescent scoliosis). In adulthood, a continuing case of scoliosis typically becomes known as Adolescent Scoliosis in Adults or ASA. The second type is Degenerative De-Novo Scoliosis (DDS) – this is the development of a new scoliosis case, usually as a result of spinal degeneration. This page deals with ASA – click here for more on De-Novo Scoliosis
Sometimes scoliosis is not diagnosed until adulthood and in this instance, it is referred to simply as adult scoliosis.
Pre-Existing cases in adults, (ASA) can be divided into two types, progressive or stable – the two require a different approach to treatment. In those with a previous diagnosis of adolescent scoliosis, monitoring progression is easy, as comparison of current x-rays to adolescent x-rays can be performed to ascertain the rate of change. Where scoliosis is not detected until adulthood however, determination as to whether the scoliosis is a pre-existing adolescent condition, or a new onset of degenerative scoliosis can be difficult.
What causes adult scoliosis?
As with other types of scoliosis, the factors which predispose an individual to the condition are thought to be hereditary, but more research is required. ASA is most often simply the progression of an adolescent scoliosis case, whereas de-novo scoliosis is caused by degeneration of the spine with age.
How is adult scoliosis diagnosed?
Adult scoliosis, unlike other forms, is usually discovered as the result of an investigation for back pain – unless it is already known from an earlier diagnosis.
Whereas juvenile and adolescent scoliosis causes are not usually associated with significant pain, adult scoliosis can be responsible for severe pain – often little relief is provided by the usual medical and complementary care.
Counter-intuitively, the pain caused as a result of adult scoliosis is not related to the size of the curve. Several good studies show there is little to no relationship between the size of the curve and the intensity of pain – therefore a 20 degree and a 55 degree curve have the same chance of causing pain in an adult.
This means that a visual observation is not always sufficient to rule out scoliosis in adults, and a professional consultation is the best approach. This being said, occasionally scoliosis is first noticed visually in adults.
What are the symptoms of adult scoliosis?
The primary complaint leading to a diagnosis of adult scoliosis is pain. Unfortunately, many health professionals – and even some scoliosis practitioners – still believe that scoliosis does not cause pain. While it is true that scoliosis in children and young adults (even where a considerable curve is present) is not usually associated with severe pain, this fact is often conflated, leaving many believing scoliosis never causes pain.
Sadly this misunderstanding means that many cases of adult scoliosis are never properly investigated, with scoliosis being dismissed as a cause, due to the presence of pain. In reality, in adults between the ages of 50 and 80 who suffer from chronic lower back pain, research shows that up 40% will have adult scoliosis and would benefit from specialised treatment.
Adult scoliosis patients will typically experience significant back pain and stiffness. As spinal degeneration increases, the inter-vertebral discs become narrowed and nerve compression develops resulting in constant sciatica, pin’s and needle’s, numbness or weakness in the legs. The spinal canal can also become narrowed and result in spinal stenosis where the spinal cord is squeezed so the patient experiences heaviness in the legs, leg pain and difficulty walking.
Pain and disability in adult scoliosis are not typically associated with the size of the curve. It is more strongly correlated with:
- Curve location – lumbar and thoracolumbar curves typically tend to be more painful especially if they are single curves.
- Postural Balance – Adults with good postural balance will have fewer symptoms, thus often those who have double curves which are balanced will have less pain.
- Bent forward posture, where an adults head and chest is in front of their pelvis, is often the primary determinant of the severity of pain and symptoms.
Adults whose head or chest is shifted to the left or right will also experience more pain than those who are in better alignment.
How is adult scoliosis treated?
To achieve effective treatment for adult scoliosis, it is important to be able to differentiate between the symptoms that are caused by the degeneration of the spine as compared to those that are caused by the deformity and its progression. This means that unless treatment addresses the postural alteration or deformity, the pain and symptoms won’t be improved. This applies to any back-rehabilitation regime, medication course or surgical procedure.
A stable or progressive case of scoliosis in adults will require different treatment – a progressive case will typically be treated more aggressively than a stable case.
Recent advances in non-surgical treatment have shown significant improvement in pain and symptoms in those with adult scoliosis. This involves the patient learning how to self-correct their abnormal posture, not just strengthen their lower back or core. When combined with a customised Scoli-Brace which helps to support the posture in a more comfortable position, pain is reduced and quality of life is improved.
When non-surgical treatment is ineffective, surgery is often the only option, especially when leg pain becomes incapacitating and walking is almost impossible. Unfortunately, surgery at this stage is always complex and with significant risk. This is why it is important to find not only a good spinal surgeon but also one who specialises in scoliosis for the best possible outcome.