Health conditions


What is scoliosis?

  • The normal spine has 3 curves: one in the neck, one in the upper back and one in the lower back. These curves can be seen from the side, but when you look from behind the spine should appear straight.
  • If the spine has a sideways curve, this is scoliosis (sco-li-o-sis).
  • About 1 in 10 to 1 in 20 girls develop some scoliosis during their growing period in early adolescence (from about 9 to 14), but in most cases the curve is mild and does not need treatment. Scoliosis is less common in boys.
  • Only about 3 in 1000 children have curves that are large enough to need treatment.

What causes scoliosis?

The cause of most scoliosis is not known. This is called idiopathic scoliosis. Sometimes other people in a family also have idiopathic scoliosis.

In some children there are other problems, such as an injury causing muscle spasm, an injury to the spine, unequal leg lengths, or problems with muscle control (such as cerebral palsy) causing the sideways bend of the spine. If these can be treated the scoliosis will go away.

How to look for signs of scoliosis

  • Young people will need to get someone to check their back; they cannot do this themselves.
  • First get them to stand up straight, with feet together and arms hanging by their side (see position 1 in the diagram below). The person looking at the back checks to see if:
    • one shoulder is higher than the other
    • one shoulder blade is higher or sticks out more than the othe
    • one hip sticks out more than the other.
  • Then they need to bend forward with their legs straight so that their hands are near to their feet (see positions 2 and 3 in the diagram below). The person looking checks to see if one side of the back is higher than the other.
Diagram showing a person performing the tests used to look for signs of scoliosis
  • Sometimes with scoliosis, one side of the back may be higher at the top of the back, and the other side may be higher in the lower back.
Drawing of a person performing the forward bending test, which reveals they have one side of the back higher than the other.

The forward bending test.

  • If there are any of these signs of possible scoliosis, the young person needs to have their back checked by a doctor.
  • If the scoliosis is more than a mild curve, X-rays will be done to measure the curve, and repeated later so that changes in the curve can be picked up. Sometimes the curve is so large that a doctor will recommend treatment straight away.

Treatment for scoliosis

  • Most scoliosis is very slight and needs no treatment.
  • Small curves may be watched during the child’s growing period to see if they get larger (and most don’t get large enough to need treatment).
  • If the curve is large, or it is getting larger, and treatment is needed, the results of treatment are very good, especially when the curve is found early.
    • A spinal brace may stop a curve from becoming worse. These braces need to be worn for most of every day for more than a year.
    • An operation is needed for some severe curves.
  • Physiotherapy and chiropractic treatment cannot cure scoliosis.
  • Untreated severe scoliosis can cause back pain and breathing problems.
  • People with scoliosis need to exercise normally and stay fit for their general health and wellbeing. Their spine is not weak, and there is no need to stop any exercise.

More information

  • Contact your local community, school of child health nurse.
  • Speak to your family doctor.

© Women’s and Children’s Health Network, reproduced with permission. The South Australian Government does not accept responsibility for the accuracy of this reproduction.

Women’s and Children’s Health Network, SA Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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