While you might think a glance in the mirror could tell you if your spine is curved instead of straight, you’ll want to visit your doctor if you think you have scoliosis.
Your doctor will talk to you about your medical history and symptoms and perform a physical exam.
What Are the Symptoms of Scoliosis?
Here's how to spot the symptoms of scoliosis in yourself or your child. If you think you have it, see your doctor.
Scoliosis symptoms in kids. This condition usually appears when a child is between 8 and 10 years old. The symptoms might get worse as they grow.
Every child with scoliosis is different. Some don't have any symptoms. Others have very obvious ones, like:
- Their shoulders are different heights.
- Their head doesn't look centered with the rest of their body.
- One hip is higher than the other or sticks out.
- Their ribs are pushed out.
- When the child stands straight, their arms don't hang down straight next to their body.
- When they bend forward, the sides of their back are different heights.
These changes to your child's body can affect their self-esteem.
Scoliosis symptoms in adults. Some adults who have this condition have had it since they were teenagers. Over time, the curves can grow.
There’s another form of scoliosis that starts in adulthood. As you get older, wear and tear damages the bones and joints in your spine. The disks that sit between them start to break down. As this happens, the disks lose height and start to tilt. This causes your spine to curve.
Often, back pain is the first sign of scoliosis in adults. The pain may be from bone damage in the back -- not the scoliosis itself. As the spine curves, it can put pressure on nearby nerves and cause symptoms like weakness and numbness.
In adults, scoliosis causes symptoms like these:
- Uneven shoulders and/or hips
- Bump in the lower back
- Numbness, weakness, or pain in the legs
- Trouble walking
- Trouble standing up straight
- Tired feeling
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of height
- Bone spurs -- bony bumps in the joints of the spine from bone and joint damage
- Feeling full quickly while you eat. This is because your spine is putting pressure on your belly.
How Is the Exam Done?
As you stand with your arms relaxed by your side, your doctor will see if your shoulders or waist seem uneven. Of course, they’ll also look closely at your back.
Your scoliosis exam will likely include what’s called the “Adam’s forward bend test.” Your doctor will ask you to lean over. They’ll stand behind you as you bend to check how even your back appears. Anything that looks abnormal in the back or ribcage -- like a hump -- might be a sign of scoliosis.
If your spine is curved, your doctor may use a tool called a scoliometer to estimate its angle. To see the curve more clearly, they’ll order standing X-rays of your spine from the back and from the side. These images can be used to accurately measure the degree of your backbone’s curve.
Your doctor will tell you that you have scoliosis if your curve is greater than 10 degrees. Doctors classify angles of 25 to 50 degrees as mild to moderate, while those that are more than 50 degrees are severe.
In addition to X-rays, your doctor may ask for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This could show if a tumor or cyst is the cause of the scoliosis.
Testing at Schools
Students may be screened for scoliosis at school, typically using the Adam’s forward bend test.
But this practice has become controversial. The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends against routine scoliosis tests. The reason, in part, is because the cases found at schools are often low risk and don’t need treatment like braces or surgery.
But be aware that spinal curves can change during adolescent growth spurts. If your child’s curve measures between 5 and 9 degrees, schedule another exam in 6 months.
Adult Scoliosis Tests
When you have back pain or numbness in your legs, your doctor may test for degenerative scoliosis. They’ll ask questions about where it hurts and if anything makes the pain better or worse. They’ll also look closely at your spine, shoulders, and hips as you stand and move. You may be asked to lean forward or from side to side.
X-rays to test for degenerative scoliosis need to show all parts of your spine, as well as your hips and pelvis. Your doctor will examine the images for alignment, curvature, and balance.
If you had idiopathic scoliosis in the past, you may have more problems with it as an adult than you did as a teen. Your doctor might get a new set of X-rays to measure any changes to your spine’s curve. If you have leg pain or an atypical curve pattern, your doctor could order an MRI to show detailed information about your back’s disks and nerves.