Health A to Z
Scoliosis is where the spine twists and curves to the side.
It can affect people of any age, from babies to adults, but most often starts in children aged 10-15.
Scoliosis doesn't normally improve without treatment, but it isn't usually a sign of anything serious and treatment isn't always needed if it's mild.
This page covers:
Signs of scoliosis include:
Some people with scoliosis may also have back pain. This tends to be more common in adults with the condition.
See your GP if you think you or your child has scoliosis. It's unlikely that there's anything seriously wrong, but it's best to get checked out.
Your GP will examine your back and can refer you to a hospital doctor for help with diagnosis if they suspect scoliosis.
An X-ray of your back will be carried out in hospital to check whether your spine is curved and how severe the curve is.
If you're diagnosed with scoliosis, you should see a specialist to discuss treatment options.
Treatment for scoliosis depends on your age, how severe the curve is, and whether it's likely to get worse with time.
Many people won't need any treatment and only a small number will need to have surgery on their spine.
It's not clear whether back exercises help improve scoliosis, but general exercise is good for overall health and shouldn't be avoided unless advised by your doctor.
Most people with scoliosis are able to live normal lives and can do most activities, including exercise and sports.
The condition doesn't usually cause significant pain or any other health problems, and tends to stay the same after you stop growing – see your GP if it gets any worse.
Having scoliosis or wearing a back brace can be tough and may cause problems with body image and self-esteem, particularly for children and teenagers.
You may find it useful to contact a support group, such as Scoliosis Association UK. These groups are a good source of information and support, and they may be able to put you in touch with other people in a similar situation to you.
In around 8 in every 10 cases, the cause of scoliosis is unknown. This is called idiopathic scoliosis.
Idiopathic scoliosis can't be prevented and isn't thought to be linked to things such as bad posture, exercise or diet. Your genes may make you more likely to get it, though, as it sometimes runs in families.
Less commonly, scoliosis may be caused by:
Scoliosis Association UK has more information about the different types of scoliosis.
If your child has scoliosis, the recommended treatment will depend on their age, how severe the curve is, and whether it's getting worse.
The main options are:
Many children won't need treatment, and only a small number end up having surgery.
There is a separate page about treatments for scoliosis in adults.
Treatment is not always necessary for very young children because their spine may straighten as they grow.
But if the curve doesn't correct itself, there's a small risk it could reduce the space for the organs to grow, so careful monitoring by a specialist is important.
Your specialist may recommend regular examinations and X-rays to monitor the curve and decide if treatment is needed.
Regular monitoring may also be recommended for older children with mild scoliosis, as treatment might not be needed if it's not getting worse over time.
In babies and toddlers, treatment to try to help straighten the spine as it grows may be recommended. This may involve wearing a plaster cast fitted around their back.
The cast is worn constantly and can't be removed, but it's changed every few months as your child grows.
Parents often find it easier for their child to wear a cast while they're still very young, rather than getting them to wear a removable back brace every day.
You may decide to switch to a back brace when your child is a bit older.
If the curve of your child's spine is getting worse, your specialist may recommend they wear a back brace while they're growing.
This won't correct the curve, but might help stop it getting worse. There are still some uncertainties about how well braces work, though, so they're not recommended by all scoliosis specialists.
Your child will usually have to wear the brace for as long as they're growing. For most children, this means they can stop wearing it when they're around 16 or 17.
Scoliosis Association UK has more information about bracing.
Surgery may be recommended if your child's scoliosis continues to get worse despite trying other treatments, or if they have severe scoliosis and they've stopped growing.
The type of surgery offered will depend on your child's age.
Younger children – generally those under 10 – can have an operation to insert special rods alongside the spine. This can help stop the curve getting worse as the spine grows.
After the operation, your child will need to return to their specialist every few months to have the rods lengthened to keep up with their growth.
Depending on the type of rods used, this will be done either:
Even if they have surgery, your child may need to wear a brace to protect their back.
When they stop growing, the rods can be removed and a final operation to straighten their spine may be carried out.
Teenagers and young adults who've stopped growing can have an operation called a spinal fusion to correct the curve.
This is a major operation where the spine is straightened using metal rods, screws, hooks or wires, along with bits of bone taken from elsewhere in your body, often the hip. These are usually left in place permanently.
Sometimes they'll need to wear a back brace after surgery to protect the back while it heals.
Like any operation, spinal surgery carries a risk of complications. It will only be recommended if your surgeon feels the benefits outweigh the risks.
Some of the main risks include:
Make sure you discuss the potential complications with your surgeon.
Regular exercise is important for children with scoliosis. It can help improve muscle strength and may help reduce any back pain.
Children with scoliosis can usually do most types of exercise safely. They only need to avoid certain activities if advised to do so by a specialist.
It's not yet clear whether specific back exercises or physiotherapy can help improve scoliosis – they're not recommended by all specialists.
Back pain is one of the main problems caused by scoliosis in adults, so treatment is mainly aimed at pain relief.
The main options are:
If the condition isn't severe and isn't causing any pain, treatment may not be needed.
There is a separate page about treatments for scoliosis in children.
Painkilling tablets may help relieve the pain that can be associated with scoliosis.
But anti-inflammatories aren't suitable for everyone, so check the box or leaflet to see whether you can take the medicine first. Speak to a pharmacist if you're not sure.
See your GP if over-the-counter painkillers don't work. They may prescribe stronger painkillers or refer you to a specialist pain management clinic.
Activities that strengthen and stretch your back may help reduce your pain. Exercise can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which can reduce the strain on your back.
It doesn't matter what type of exercise you choose – the important thing is to keep your back moving. Choose something you enjoy and are likely to be able to stick with.
Some people may also benefit from doing back exercises taught by a physiotherapist. These are unlikely to improve the curvature of your spine, but may help with your pain.
If you have scoliosis, it's a good idea to speak to a healthcare professional – such as a GP, scoliosis specialist or physiotherapist – before starting a new exercise programme to check it's safe.
Scoliosis can sometimes irritate or put pressure on the nerves in and around your spine, causing pain, numbness and a tingling sensation that can be felt in your lower back down to your feet.
But the benefits of these injections tend to only last a few weeks or months, so they're not usually a long-term solution.
Back braces aren't often used in adults with scoliosis, but they can provide pain relief by supporting your spine.
A brace may be considered as an alternative to surgery if you're not well enough to undergo an operation.
Most adults with scoliosis won't need spinal surgery.
But it may be considered if:
Several different surgical techniques may be used, such as:
In many cases, a combination of these techniques will be used.
Spinal surgery is a major operation and it can take up to a year or more to fully recover.
It also carries a risk of potentially serious complications, including: