What is adult scoliosis?

Scoliosis is an abnormal curve of the spine (backbone). There is a natural, forward-and-backward curve to the spine. With scoliosis, the spine twists and develops a side-to-side curve. The curve 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 does not determine treatment. Treatment is geared towards relieving symptoms, not fixing the curve.

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 a 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.

“Idiopathic” (coming from an unknown cause) scoliosis usually is 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.

In general, most scoliosis in adolescents occurs in the thoracic or rib cage portion of the spine. In adults the main concern is almost always 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 most common form of adult scoliosis is “degenerative.” Adult scoliosis may be a case of pediatric scoliosis that was undiscovered until adulthood. But in most cases the changes in the spine may be due to aging. In some cases adolescent scoliosis may develop symptoms with aging and require treatment.

What are the symptoms of adult scoliosis?

Most cases of adult scoliosis don’t cause symptoms, though pain may develop. In some cases changes in the body may include height loss and uneven alignment of the pelvis and hips.

Leg pain may come as the scoliosis develops due to pressure on the nerves. Back pain occurs for many reasons including degenerative changes, but is most often due to weakness of the core musculature and loss of conditioning.

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