What is adult scoliosis?

Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine (backbone). There is a natural, forward-and-backward curve to the spine. With scoliosis, the spine rotates and develops a side-to-side curve. Curves may be as mild as 10 degrees, or as severe as 100 degrees or more.

Most cases of scoliosis are mild and don’t need treatment. In adults, the degree of the spinal curve may or may not determine treatment. Treatment is geared towards relieving symptoms, and not necessarily fixing the curve. The goal is always to decrease pain and improve function.

Though scoliosis itself is painless, the normal age-related degeneration of the spine may lead to symptoms. These symptoms are treated the same whether there is scoliosis or not. Scoliosis only becomes a factor when surgery is being considered. Changes in the appearance of the body are also possible depending on the degree of the spinal curve.

In general, most scoliosis in adolescents occurs in the thoracic or rib cage portion of the spine. In adults the main concern is typically in the lumbar or lower spine. This portion of the spine is most susceptible to the changes seen with aging or degeneration.

What causes adult scoliosis?

The cause of adult scoliosis varies depending on the type of scoliosis. The most common form of adult scoliosis is degenerative (spine curves as you age). Adult scoliosis may be a case of pediatric scoliosis that was undiscovered until adulthood. In some cases, adolescent scoliosis may develop symptoms with aging and require treatment. Idiopathic (coming from an unknown cause) scoliosis is usually discovered during growth in childhood or adolescence. When it begins or is found after puberty, it is called adult idiopathic scoliosis because the curve is discovered after complete skeletal growth.

What are the symptoms of adult scoliosis?

Most cases of adult scoliosis don’t cause symptoms, though pain may develop. Back pain occurs for many reasons including arthritis, inability to stand upright, and/or due to weakness of the core musculature and loss of conditioning. Leg pain/numbness/weakness may develop if there is pressure on the nerves in the lumbar spine.

In some cases, changes in the body may include:

  • Height loss
  • Uneven alignment of the pelvis and hips

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy