Adult onset scoliosis, also known as adult degenerative scoliosis, is a lateral curve (to one side or the other) that develops in adults due to aging or injury. Scoliosis is most often thought about as a childhood spine condition. However, scoliosis does occur in adults and is most often due to deterioration of the discs in the spine.
FAQs About Adult Degenerative Scoliosis
Continue reading below to learn more about scoliosis in older adults or use these links to go directly to the information that interests you.
- Can you get scoliosis as an adult?
- What is adult scoliosis?
- How common is scoliosis in adults?
- What are scoliosis symptoms in adults?
- What are risk factors for developing scoliosis?
- How bad is scoliosis pain in adults?
- What are degrees of scoliosis?
- How fast does scoliosis progress in adults?
- How is adult onset scoliosis managed?
- How is adult scoliosis treated in Denver?
Can you get scoliosis as an adult?
Yes, scoliosis in adults does occur and is often a result of aging (degenerative scoliosis), genetics, undiagnosed pediatric or adolescent scoliosis, osteoporosis, or injury (traumatic scoliosis). Generally, scoliosis in adults over 50 is most common as age, genetics, and/or the natural impact of gravity cause discs in the back to breakdown or shift.
What is adult scoliosis?
Adult onset scoliosis occurs when adults who did not have scoliosis as a child or in adolescence develop scoliosis later in life. As discs herniate, collapse, or deteriorate as people age, some people will develop a curve in their spine. This curve could be forward and cause a leaned over posture with a hump in the upper back. This condition is called kyphosis. Your spine also might start curving to one side or the other. That lateral curve in the spine is called scoliosis. When it happens because of aging or deterioration of the spine, it’s called degenerative scoliosis. When the curve results from injury, it is called traumatic scoliosis. When there’s no known cause of scoliosis, it is referred to as adult idiopathic scoliosis.
How common is scoliosis in adults?
There is not concrete data on scoliosis in adults, often because it may not cause any problems or it is undiagnosed. Some studies show that of adults aged 80 and older, up to 70% have degenerative scoliosis. Other estimates show that up to 1 in 4 adults may suffer from some degree of adult onset scoliosis.
What are scoliosis symptoms in adults?
Lower back pain is the most common sign of adult onset scoliosis. As degenerative scoliosis progresses, you may experience increased pain, particularly with activity. Uneven shoulders, a bump in the back, difficulty walking, shortness of breath, weakness or numbness in the leg, or trouble standing upright can also be signs of scoliosis. Bladder or bowel issues could also be signs of scoliosis
There are a series of tests used to diagnose scoliosis in adults. These include taking a medical history, conducting a physical exam, and having a full set of X-rays of your spine and pelvis taken. In some cases, a CT scan or MRI may be used to diagnose your scoliosis.
What are risk factors for developing scoliosis?
While the causes of scoliosis in adults are not always known (which is referred to as idiopathic scoliosis), genetics, natural aging, wear and tear on the spine, or injury often play a role. People who smoke, or who are obese are at greater risk of developing scoliosis.
How bad is scoliosis pain in adults?
Scoliosis pain is dependent on the degree of the curve in your back, your genetics, your pain tolerance, and the location of the disc or nerve issue causing your scoliosis. Some patients with mild don’t feel anything while others experience mild pain. Mild scoliosis in adults may cause headaches or radiating pain down the leg (known as sciatica), which can occur when a nerve is pinched as a result of spinal stenosis or a herniated disc.
What are degrees of scoliosis?
Scoliosis is defined as a curvature in the spine of more than 10 degrees. The degrees are also known as the Cobb angle, which measures the lateral curvature of the spine. Mild scoliosis in adults is when the Cobb angle is more than 10 degrees but less than 25 degrees. Mild scoliosis can get worse in adults as the curvature of the spine naturally progresses with age, deterioration of the discs, and compression on the spine. Moderate scoliosis is when the curvature is greater than 25 but less than 40. Severe scoliosis is defined as anything over 40 degrees.
How fast does scoliosis progress in adults?
Unfortunately, scoliosis is a progressive condition, meaning it gets worse over time. However, scoliosis affects everyone differently, with some patients experiencing minimal progression year after year. Lifestyle changes—diet, exercise, eliminating smoking—can be effective ways for you to prevent scoliosis from progressing rapidly. Age is the most common factor in scoliosis progressing.
Scoliosis in adults over 50 can progress at a rate of 1-3 degrees a year. Younger adults typically experience less progression annually and older adults often experience more progression as the body ages and the spine deteriorates.
Because scoliosis progresses in adults at different rates, ongoing monitoring by a board-certified Denver spine surgeon is recommended. This allows your spine specialist to monitor your progression and recommend effective scoliosis treatment as you go, rather than wait for your progression to worsen to the point where scoliosis surgery is your only option.
How is adult onset scoliosis managed?
Depending on the type and severity of your scoliosis, your spine specialist will typically monitor your scoliosis through X-rays every 6-12 months. This allows your spine surgeon to compare your images over time, detect the level of progression, and offer effective scoliosis treatment.
Various kinds of doctors treat scoliosis in adults in Denver, ranging from primary care physicians to orthopedic specialists to spine surgeons. The benefits of seeing a spine surgeon, regardless of whether or not your scoliosis is mild or severe, is that a spine surgeon can offer the complete range of scoliosis treatment options, from conservative approaches that help minimize pain and discomfort to spine fusion surgery.
How is adult scoliosis treated in Denver?
Lifestyle changes, like losing weight and eliminating smoking, medications, physical therapy, spinal cord stimulation, or scoliosis surgery are all considered effective treatment options for adult scoliosis. The type of treatment your Denver spine surgeon recommends will depend on several factors including the amount of pain you are experiencing, the amount of curvature in your spine, and your overall health and lifestyle goals.
Reviewed by Dr. Joshua Beckman, Denver spine surgeon and adult scoliosis specialist.