Can Adults Develop Scoliosis?

Updated April 20, 2015

Question: I'm 51 years old, and I have adult scoliosis. The doctor said my curve is 32 degrees. I thought that only teenage girls got scoliosis, but I was wrong. I have pain all day every day. Can I still wear a brace or do I need surgery?
—Scottsdale, AZ

Answer: You are correct—teenage girls aren't the only people who have scoliosis. Although scoliosis only affects about 2% of the population and is most common in adolescent girls, boys and adults can actually develop it, too.

Adult scoliosis is often diagnosed once you notice key symptoms, such as your entire body leaning to one side, uneven shoulder height, and back pain.

However, many adults actually have undiagnosed adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, which may have been there for years—even decades. On the other hand, you could develop adult scoliosis, also called de novo scoliosis, as a result of degenerative changes in your spine from getting older.

I know you've already been diagnosed with adult scoliosis, but to help others understand the diagnostic process, I'm going to describe it briefly before talking about treatments.

You should make an appointment with a doctor who is familiar with adult scoliosis. Often times, patients with adult scoliosis have pain, and that's why they initially visit the doctor. To make an accurate diagnosis, your doctor will need to examine you and rule out other conditions.

It's important to note that back pain may be caused by degenerative changes unrelated to adult scoliosis. For example, if you have leg pain, then spinal stenosis—a narrowing of your spinal canal—would need to be ruled out first.

To rule out other conditions, your doctor may order imaging tests, such as a CT scan or MRI.

With a diagnosis of adult scoliosis, your first course of treatment should be non-surgical treatments, such as physical therapy and pain medications, to help reduce your pain or prevent it from getting worse.

Using a spinal brace in the short-term can help decrease your back pain, but normally, it's not recommended you wear it full-time.

Instead, try to incorporate moderate physical activity into your routine to build and strengthen your back muscles. Your doctor may also recommend pain management techniques, such as epidural steroid injections and biofeedback, depending on your symptoms.

Most people with adult scoliosis don't need surgery, but if you've tried non-surgical treatments and they don't seem to work for you, you may need surgery. Your doctor will help you make that decision.