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Spinal curves in kids

Everything parents should know about scoliosis.

Article Author: Katie McPherson

Article Date:

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At some point during your child's school years, you’ll probably have to sign a slip permitting him or her to be screened for scoliosis. While the back condition may not typically be top of mind, this little screening might get you thinking. So, while most schools and pediatricians’ offices keep an eye on growing backs, here’s what parents should know about this spinal condition.

It's more common than you may think.

Scoliosis is an abnormal curve of the spine which, if severe enough, can cause pain or cosmetic concerns. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, scoliosis affects between 6 and 9 million people in the U.S. alone. In most cases it’s idiopathic, meaning there's no obvious cause.

“Idiopathic scoliosis happens to normal, healthy people,” said Kevin Neal, MD, board-certified pediatric orthopedic surgeon with Nemours Children’s Health, Jacksonville, and chief of pediatric orthopedic surgery at Wolfson Children’s Hospital. “It’s likely genetic and can run in families, but it can happen out of the blue. It typically occurs while children are growing.”

There are other types of scoliosis, like congenital and neuromuscular. Congenital scoliosis happens when the spine forms incorrectly in the womb, while neuromuscular is caused by another underlying condition, like muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy.

You can monitor your child at home.

Yes, schools and primary care doctors usually examine kids for scoliosis, but parents can still be on the lookout for early signs and symptoms, including:

  • Asymmetry in the back or trunk of the body
  • Asymmetry in the waist (if you place your child in front of a window, there will be more daylight on one side than the other, according to Dr. Neal)
  • Ribs or shoulder blades sticking out on one side
  • Shoulders or hips not being level

Dr. Neal said scoliosis is three-dimensional, so the spine can curve in any direction, leading to these asymmetrical body parts. Keep a closer eye on preteens, as they’re the age group most commonly diagnosed.

“It’s not specifically related to age, but more related to growth spurts, and all children go through a major one in their early teen years,” Dr. Neal said. “It happens around age 12 for girls and 14 for boys. It can happen to both, but scoliosis is seven to eight times more common in girls.”

If you’re worried, your child’s doctor can help.

Do you have concerns about your little one’s spine? Dr. Neal recommended scheduling an appointment with your child's pediatrician. Your doctor can screen for scoliosis, determine if X-rays are needed, and refer you to a specialist who can offer treatment options.

The need for surgery is pretty rare.

The good news about scoliosis is, in most cases, the spinal curves are so small they can just be monitored by a specialist until your kid grows out of them.

“Many smaller curves will not progress and don’t require other specific treatment. Braces can help with larger curves while patients are still growing. Surgery is only necessary when bracing doesn’t work or the curves are too severe,” said Dr. Neal.

Whether a child just needs to be monitored or ultimately has to undergo surgery, he or she should come out of scoliosis treatment ready to take on the world.

“The outlook is great. They should be the same as everybody else without significant limitations,” Dr. Neal said. “Idiopathic scoliosis doesn’t cause medical problems, limit function or affect the internal organs. Even after brace treatment or surgery, patients recover and have normal activity levels.”

If your child is diagnosed with scoliosis and needs expert care for their growing back, Wolfson Children’s Hospital, in collaboration with Nemours Children’s Health, Jacksonville, offers world-class orthopedic care. Call 904.697.3600 to schedule an appointment.

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