Many Adults Are Totally Unaware That Their Back Pain Is Because of This Health Condition

Kirsti Buick

From Women's Health

The word ‘scoliosis’ probably conjures up images of someone trudging around in a back brace all day. Or the curving upper back scar Princess Eugenie showed off on her wedding day.

It’s a really rare condition, isn’t it?

Nope. Scoliosis is far more common that you may think. It’s usually diagnosed in kids aged 10-15, and affects 2-3% of the global population – but many adults with more mild cases may be completely unaware they have it, says osteopath Anisha Joshi.

‘Many patients don’t have symptoms at all. I often have patients come in for something else, who are shocked to discover they have a mild scoliosis.’

What is scoliosis?

Scoliosis is a sideways curve of the spine. Some people are simply born this way, and others will develop it later life. It’s not infectious or contagious. It’s not a disease, but in rare cases, it can be caused by neuromuscular conditions like muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy.

According to Scoliosis UK (SAUK), many scoliosis cases are idiopathic, which means that there is no known cause. Sometimes, it runs in families – about a quarter of people with scoliosis have a relative with it too.

There are two types of scoliosis, Joshi says: structural, in which the spine is actually physically curved and functional, in which the spine only appears to be curved.

‘The latter happens when muscles in the body are imbalanced and over time, cause the spine to look like it's curved. This is true of many of the adult cases I see, and it could be caused by something as simple as always wearing a bag on one shoulder, or constantly balancing a child on one hip.’

27 June is International Scoliosis Awareness Day. 'Every year people affected by the condition bake, blog, run, sing, dance, and cycle their hearts out to speak out about scoliosis,' according to SAUK.

7 signs of scoliosis

  1. A curved spine
  2. Uneven shoulders
  3. Hips not level
  4. Ribs sticking out on one side
  5. One leg longer than the other
  6. Clothes not fitting well
  7. Back pain

Scoliosis has a knock-on effect on the rest of the body. It may pull the rib cage out of place, cause one shoulder to be raised, one hip to stick out, or one leg to appear longer than the other. In some cases, people with scoliosis may find store-bought clothes don’t fit properly.

It could also cause back pain for a number of reasons. The curve or abnormal posture can result in increased pressure on your spinal disks, stretched or irritated nerves, joint strain or tight, tired muscles. Ouch.

The NHS recommends you consult your GP if you suspect you have scoliosis. It's unlikely that there's anything seriously wrong, but it's best to get it seen to, especially if you're experiencing pain. Further tests like an X-Ray or MRI might be required to confirm you have it, and if you do, what type.

If you’re concerned, Scoliosis UK is also great resource for getting help.

What’s the treatment for scoliosis?

Many scoliosis cases are mild and don’t require treatment, Joshi says. The treatment for scoliosis depends on your age, severity, whether it's likely to get worse and how it's affecting your quality of life.

According to the NHS, babies and toddlers with scoliosis may not need treatment as the curve could improve over time, although in some cases, doctors may recommend a plaster cast or plastic brace to their back to stop the curve getting worse as they grow.

Older children may need a back brace to stop the curve getting worse, or in more severe cases, surgery to correct the curve, in which the spine is straightened using rods attached to the spine by screws, hooks or wires.

In rare cases surgery may be recommended for adults too. ‘That’s only as a last resort in cases where the scoliosis is very severe, and affecting someone’s quality of life,’ Joshi says. Most adults with scoliosis just need treatment to relieve pain, like painkillers, massage or injections.

‘Functional scoliosis caused by an imbalance can be corrected by addressing that imbalance,’ Joshi says. This may include massage and mobilisation of the spine by an osteopath, chiropractor or physiotherapist.

Can I exercise if I have scoliosis?

Yes. ‘Exercise is always good,’ Joshi says. ‘It can increase blood flow, build strength to support the area and increase mobility. As long as you’re wary of form – which you should always be – there is no reason for anyone with scoliosis not to exercise.’

'I discovered I had scoliosis at age 28'

WH Junior Fitness Editor Kirsti Buick was shocked to discover scoliosis was the cause of the lower back pain she'd been experiencing since she was a teenager.

I had my first visit to an osteopath in my late 20s to get some advice on aching knees – no surprises really, since I tore all the ligaments in my left when I was younger, and had to have surgery a few years back.

But Nadia Alibhai took one look at my back, and what she said knocked thoughts of knee niggles right out of my mind: 'Did you know you have scoliosis?'

Er, what? I actually didn't believe her at first – until she filmed a video of herself tracing her finger down the length of my decidedly 's'-shaped spine. I'd never had any symptoms, other than the occasional aches in my lower back. They started happening in my mid teens, and while irritating, they certainly didn't happen with enough frequency and intensity for me to get checked out.

'Do I need a brace?' I asked her, panic rising. 'Surgery?'

Not at all, she replied kindly. It was mild, and it wasn't affecting my quality of life. Instead, she spent what was left of my session releasing the tight muscles in my neck and shoulders and giving my neck and back a few satisfying cracks to relieve the tension. She advised me to keep up with my regular exercise, and see her again in a few weeks.

Since then, I've been seeing an osteopath regularly. The sessions reduce any lower back pain I'm experiencing – I can tell when the time for my next appointment is drawing nearer when the aches kick in again. I've also found yoga and regular stretching help too, especially if I've been stuck at my desk all day.

As shocked as I was at my diagnosis, I'm grateful that my scoliosis isn't serious enough to have too much of an effect on my lifestyle – and by taking care of myself with regular exercise, mobility work and a bit of expert guidance – I intend to keep it that way.'

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