Scoliosis: Separating Myth from Fact

Scoliosis, an abnormal, lateral curvature of the spine can affect men and women of all ages. In its most advanced stages, scoliosis can cause severe spinal deformity. Development of this severe deformity is among the largest fears many people have when initially diagnosed with the condition. In an attempt to become as educated as possible and to allay their own fears, people will often comb the Internet looking for answers to their scoliosis questions. The good news: they'll find massive amounts of information. The bad news: plenty of the information they'll find is also inaccurate. After more than 20 years in practice as an orthopedic spine surgeon specializing in scoliosis, I still have patients come to me with false or misguided information about the condition. In an effort to accurately educate and empower the public with reliable scoliosis information, outlined below are some of the most common myths related to this condition and the factual answers to dispel the myths.
Hand sketching Myths or Facts concept with white chalk on blackboardMyth #1: Scoliosis is preventable. I've consoled many tearful parents in my office, who wonder how they could have prevented their child's scoliosis diagnosis. I tell them all the same thing: there are currently no reputable clinical or scientific studies to prove that scoliosis can be prevented. In fact, most cases of the condition fall into the "idiopathic" category, which means there is no known origin. When there isn't a known origin, it even tougher to assess opportunities for prevention. While much research is currently being conducted to determine root causes and prevention opportunities for scoliosis, parents, and patients for that matter, shouldn't beat themselves up about their inability to prevent it.

Myth #2: Wearing a heavy backpack causes scoliosis. This common myth goes back to the concept that most scoliosis cases, especially those diagnosed in children between the ages of 10-12 years old, are idiopathic in nature. There has been much debate in recent years to suggest heavy back packs  as a root cause of scoliosis but no reputable, scientific evidence is currently available to support this claim. While it is true that prolonged wearing of a heavy backpack isn't good for posture or overall spine healthy, it is not true that this activity causes scoliosis.

Myth #3: Everyone diagnosed with scoliosis will eventually become severely deformed. While there are some cases of scoliosis that result in severe deformity, the vast majority do not. It is often the case that those diagnosed with scoliosis based on an x-ray of the spine for something unrelated didn't even know they had the condition because it didn't present any symptoms or visible deformity. For many people with scoliosis, the degree curvature of the spine progresses very minutely over time and sometimes it doesn't progress at all. When this is the case, the simple act of 'watchful waiting' is an appropriate, and often the only necessary treatment approach.

Myth #4: Exercise, bracing, and other alternative treatment methods can change or correct the abnormal degree of curvature in the spine. Most people with scoliosis curves that require some form of attention don't enjoy the idea of surgery to correct their curve. This is a completely reasonable concern. But sadly, one of the biggest myths I hear from patients when they come to me after they've attempted alternative therapies is that they thought their curve would be reversed by these efforts. Bracing, manipulation, exercise and other methods of alternative therapy aren't intended to reverse spinal curvature. When properly employed, some techniques have been found to stop or slow curve progression, and many can have a positive effect on the back pain that can be associated with severe scoliosis, but none have been clinically proven to reverse or 'cure' the condition.

Myth #5:  Surgery to adequately correct severe scoliosis curvatures is invasive, very risky and extremely painful. Science and medicine have come a long way since surgery to correct spinal deformities began. Newer, safer and less traumatic techniques have been developed over the years, and there is much clinical evidence to support their effectiveness. In the past, surgical correction of a scoliosis curve involved large incisions, cutting through layers of muscle that took a long time to heal post-operatively, and significant amounts of blood loss. Today, better results can be achieved with techniques that involve small incisions that enable surgeons to avoid cutting delicate muscle tissue, and as a result, with little blood loss. With these methods, patients are able to return to their normal lives sooner and with less pain and complications from surgery as were present with previous techniques. Of course, all surgery involves some risk and engaging in an open dialogue about these risks with a qualified, skilled and experienced surgeon who specializes in minimally-invasive spinal deformity correction is advised.

As with most information on the Internet today, some sources are better than others. When searching for scoliosis facts, seek out sources of information that use clinical studies and data to support their claims. If some claims you read seem outrageous or "too good to be true," they probably are. When in doubt, talk with your doctor about where he or she suggests you go for the best, most reliable information. Once you have the information you're looking for, be sure to consult with your physician first before making any medical decisions.