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Your doctor can usually diagnose scoliosis after a physical examination of the spine.

Your doctor can usually diagnose scoliosis after a physical examination of the spine.
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What is scoliosis?

Scoliosis is the term for the sideways curvature of the spine. It can occur at any age, but tends to start in children and teenagers. Scoliosis can get better without any treatment, but can also get worse with time. People with scoliosis may need to see their doctor regularly to check on its progress.

What are the symptoms of scoliosis?

The symptoms and signs of scoliosis include:

  • head not centred over the body
  • shoulders that are uneven, or one shoulder blade that sticks out more than the other
  • waist creases that are uneven
  • unusual gaps between one arm and the trunk
  • one hip higher than the other
  • an obvious exaggerated curve of the spine
  • back pain or discomfort
  • shortness of breath
  • bowel or bladder problems
  • a posture that is unusual or uneven, or leaning to the side

You can find out more about detecting scoliosis in this factsheet from Scoliosis Australia

Illustration showing an example of scoliosis.
Scoliosis is an abnormal or exaggerated curve of the spine.

If you are concerned that your child may have scoliosis, see your doctor. Early diagnosis and treatment is important.

What causes scoliosis?

Most of the time, the cause is unknown, and scoliosis develops in otherwise healthy children.

Sometimes it is congenital, meaning it is present at birth. It is sometimes caused by problems with the nerves and muscles, such as with cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy.

Scoliosis is more common in girls than boys. It usually appears between 10 and 13 years of age, so it is a good idea to check adolescent girls for the signs below. If you are concerned that your child may have scoliosis, see your doctor. Early diagnosis and treatment is important.

How is scoliosis diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose scoliosis simply with a physical examination.

If your doctor thinks you or your child has scoliosis, they may refer you to an orthopaedic specialist. The specialist will also do a physical examination, and may order tests such as an x-ray, CT scan or MRI scan.

How is scoliosis treated?

Treatment usually aims to straighten the spine to improve the person’s appearance. The choice of treatment depends on the severity of the scoliosis and the age of the person affected.

Most cases of scoliosis are mild, and may need no further investigation or treatment. If more significant, regular check-ups may be required.

If it is more severe, the treatment may involve wearing a brace or a plaster cast, which can help prevent the curvature getting worse.

For some people, the curvature is so severe that surgery is suggested. That might involve the insertion of metal rods to straighten the spine, or surgery to fuse some of the bones together.

Exercise and physiotherapy can help ease pain.

Psychological considerations

Children and teenagers with scoliosis who need to wear a brace or have surgery may experience problems with body image and self-esteem, and may need emotional support.

Read more about scoliosis on the Scoliosis Australia website.

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Last reviewed: April 2021

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