Scoliosis in Adults: Symptoms You Should Know
Issues with the spine can impact how you live your life. Adult scoliosis, for example, can actually contort the spine in ways that cause pain, nerve damage, lack of mobility, and even visible deformity.
People often associate scoliosis with children and adolescents. While this condition commonly develops during a person’s formative years, adults can also suffer from scoliosis for different reasons.
Use this guide to attain a better understanding of your spine, the symptoms of scoliosis, and what you can do to address this condition.
Understanding Your Spine
The spinal column is a series of bones that stretch from the base of the skull all the way down to the tailbone. As you can imagine, the spinal column has several important functions. It protects the spinal cord—the superhighway that connects the brain to all other parts of the body—and the nerves that branch outward from the spinal cord. However, the nervous system isn’t the only structure that’s protected by the spine. In addition, your spine keeps vital organs such as the heart and lungs safe from insult. The spine also plays a key role in supporting the body’s weight and maintaining posture.
For most people, the spine has 33 bones known as vertebrae. These vertebrae are divided into five regions:
- Cervical: Seven bones starting at the base of the skull and forming the neck.
- Thoracic: Twelve bones located in the upper back.
- Lumbar: Five large vertebrae located in the lower back.
- Sacral: A series of fused vertebrae forming the base of the spine and the back of the pelvis.
- Coccygeal: Fused bones that make up the tailbone.
The spine is more than just bones, however. In fact, soft accessory tissues allow the spine to function properly. For example, muscles are needed to facilitate movement. Tendons connect muscles to bones, enabling bending, twisting, and ambulation. And, ligaments link bones together. Furthermore, ligaments provide additional strength to joints and limit certain movements that may cause injury.
Also, located between most vertebrae are rubbery discs that function to absorb shock as we go about our daily activities. These discs play a big role in maintaining the spine’s structure. Unfortunately, due to aging and other factors, these discs can lose their shape and alter the alignment of the spine.
Before we discuss that, however, let’s talk about how a normal spine works.
Some may think that our vertebrae stack on top of each other to form a straight line. After all, how many times have you heard someone tell you to stand (or sit) up straight?
Actually, the spine has three natural curves that give it an “S” shape when viewed from the side. Your spine curves inward at the neck (i.e. the cervical region) as well as the lower back (i.e. the lumbar spine). In contrast, a gentle outward curve occurs at the upper back (aka, your thoracic spine).
Why does the spine curve this way?
Simply put: to help you complete everyday functions. As you walk, run, jump, or even sit down, the curves of the spine allow for shock absorption to protect your spine’s integrity.
What is Scoliosis?
Scoliosis is a condition in which the spine curves to the left or right when viewed from the back of the body. These are not normal curves. And, actually, it is more than just the spine curving. Scoliosis causes the spine to rotate. Areas between the vertebrae may be compressed or stretched too much. This can affect nearby muscle groups, apply pressure on nerves, and lead to painful, chronic conditions.
How does this happen?
For some, especially children and teens, the causes of scoliosis are not known. Adult idiopathic scoliosis may be a continued progression of adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. Without proper diagnosis, monitoring, and treatment, larger scoliotic curves (in excess of 50 degrees) may only worsen as a patient ages.
Furthermore, adult idiopathic scoliosis usually occurs in the thoracic or lumbar spine.
But, even those without a history of childhood scoliosis can develop the condition.
Adult degenerative scoliosis can occur because of wear and tear on the spine. Specific conditions may cause the spine to shift left or right including:
- Disc degeneration: As we age, the discs protecting the vertebrae tend to dry out and lose shape. Sometimes injured discs even collapse. This can occur for a variety of reasons, but trauma and disease are likely culprits. Moreover, disc degeneration may cause significant changes in the structure of the spine leading to scoliosis.
- Osteoarthritis: Arthritis affecting the structures at the back of the vertebrae—facet joints—may also lead to scoliosis. Arthritis causes the cartilage protecting the joints to break down. This may lead to bone spurs or other structural abnormalities that alter spinal alignment.
Degenerative scoliosis usually occurs in the lumbar (or lower back) region. Scoliosis may even straighten the normal inward curve of the lumbar spine.
What Are Some Symptoms of Adult Scoliosis?
You may be surprised to learn that some adults with scoliosis don’t even exhibit symptoms. When adult scoliosis is more severe, however, it can lead to a variety of symptoms, ranging from mild to debilitating.
As abnormalities in the spine due to scoliosis worsen, you may notice symptoms including:
- Pain and stiffness in the lower back
- Weakness in the core muscles
- Cramping or numbness in the legs
- Shooting pain in the legs
- Difficulty walking
- Noticeable changes in posture
- Feeling tired or fatigued due to muscle strain in lower back and legs
- Shortness of breath due to compression of the lungs
- A pronounced bump in the lower back
- Premature hunger satiety (feeling full) resulting from pressure on the abdomen
- Bowel or bladder dysfunction
- Loss of height
What Causes Adult Scoliosis Symptoms?
For some, the compression of nerves or nerve roots can lead to pain, numbness, or cramping. Also, as the spine continues to rotate, the muscles and ribs can be affected. This forces the body out of normal alignment, thus causing muscle cramping, stiffness, or pain.
Diagnosing Adult Scoliosis
Since adult scoliosis shares several symptoms with other spinal conditions, it is important to get checked out by your primary physician or an orthopedic doctor. Doing so will ensure an accurate diagnosis of scoliosis or could possibly rule out other orthopedic conditions.
Diagnosing scoliosis is a fairly straightforward process. Your doctor reviews your medical history, lifestyle habits, and symptoms. Then the doctor conducts a physical exam. Your doctor will take a good look at your back and the shape of your spine. You may be asked to move around while the doctor observes your back. Additionally, your doctor may assess your reflexes and muscle strength to determine if any nerves are affected.
Sometimes diagnostic imaging can assist with a scoliosis diagnosis. X-rays are a common imaging technique that allows your doctor to obtain a better look at your spine. It’s an easy, painless way to visualize if your spine has any abnormal curves.
Advanced imaging techniques may also be used, especially if you are experiencing numbness or other neurological symptoms. These imaging techniques may include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a computerized tomography (CT) scan.
What Happens if I Have Adult Scoliosis?
Being diagnosed with scoliosis can be scary. After all, your spine is an important part of your body. When it is not normal, isn’t it serious?
Issues with the spine can be very serious. Most adults with scoliosis, however, don’t need surgery. Orthopedic doctors usually find conservative ways to manage troubling symptoms.
How do they do this?
Conservative treatments for adult scoliosis include:
- Routine observation of the spine
- Over-the-counter pain medications
- Daily stretching routines
- Exercises or physical therapy to strengthen the core and back muscles and improve range of motion
- Changing certain lifestyle habits such as smoking
- Scoliosis bracing, which can provide adults with short-term pain relief
- Nerve block injections or an epidural to alleviate leg pain and other neurological symptoms
Furthermore, sticking closely with your orthopedic surgeon’s plan of care can successfully relieve some or all of the symptoms related to your adult scoliosis.
What if Conservative Treatments Don’t Help?
Some individuals with adult scoliosis don’t respond to conservative treatments. The pain may be too severe or constant, affecting the quality of a person’s life. Others want to correct the deformity to prevent further pain and disability.
Surgery is often the last resort for those with adult scoliosis. Surgery can, however, restore spinal balance and reduce or eliminate symptoms.
There are a variety of surgical techniques to treat adult scoliosis. Discussing options with your orthopedic surgeon is the best way to determine which type of scoliosis surgery is right for you.
Ready to Talk to a Scoliosis Specialist?
If you noticed any of the scoliosis symptoms mentioned above, it’s a good idea to get checked out by a doctor who specializes in this condition. After all, scoliosis isn’t just the spine curving the wrong way. It affects nerves, muscles, joints, and other soft tissues. Without proper care, your scoliosis may only get worse.
The Advanced Spine Center can help. Dr. Jason E. Lowenstien is a board-certified, fellowship-trained Adult and Pediatric Spine and Scoliosis surgeon. His dedication to treating spinal deformities—like adult scoliosis—has earned him numerous awards in New Jersey as well as nationally.
Using the latest research and technology, Dr. Lowenstein can help you manage scoliosis symptoms and get you back to the life you want to live. His multidisciplinary team at The Advanced Spine Center will help you find the most appropriate treatment based on your condition and personal goals.
Give us a call today at (973) 538-0900 so we can get started helping you live your best life.