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Overview of scoliosis

Scoliosis is a common condition in children and teens where the spine curves sideways.

In many people, the scoliosis curvature is very slight. These people might not even realize they have scoliosis because they experience no symptoms.

For others, scoliosis can cause changes in posture as they grow. School screenings and regular checkups starting around age 10 can catch it early.

If you are concerned that you or your child may have scoliosis, the orthopedic team at Dignity Health can provide personalized, caring treatment at one of our locations.


Small spinal curves may not cause any symptoms. Scoliosis rarely causes pain. Over time, as the curve increases or as children with scoliosis grow, signs and symptoms such as these may develop:

  • Uneven shoulders
  • One shoulder blade sticking out farther than the other
  • Ribs appearing higher or sticking out more on one side
  • One hip sitting higher than the other
  • One leg looking as if it is shorter than the other
  • The body or head tilting to one side
  • Muscle pain in the low back


Most cases of scoliosis are idiopathic, meaning there is no known origin. No specific activity causes this type of scoliosis, and there is nothing you could have done to prevent it.

Idiopathic scoliosis tends to run in families and is likely at least partially inherited.

Less than one-quarter of scoliosis cases are caused by neuromuscular conditions such as muscular dystrophy or congenital disabilities involving the spine. Age-related degeneration can also lead to scoliosis.


Scoliosis is typically categorized based on its cause, as follows:

  • Idiopathic scoliosis is the most common form of scoliosis, accounting for 80 to 85 percent of cases. Idiopathic means doctors don’t know the exact cause. Idiopathic scoliosis can be described based on when it first appears:
    • Early-onset idiopathic scoliosis appears in children under the age of 10. Since children under 10 have skeletons that are still growing rapidly, early-onset scoliosis can cause an increasing impact over time, including interfering with the rib cage and lung development if left untreated.
    • Adolescent-onset idiopathic scoliosis is more common, and appears between the ages of 10 and 18 after the spine’s growth has begun to slow. While this form of scoliosis is often subtle and may not cause symptoms at all, it may still require treatment to correct the spine’s growth and prevent future medical issues.
  • Neuromuscular scoliosis is caused by diseases that affect neurological or muscular systems, such as cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. Neuromuscular scoliosis tends to be more severe and progresses more rapidly than other forms of scoliosis.
  • Congenital scoliosis is caused by congenital (present at birth) disabilities involving the spine. Since congenital scoliosis disabilities appear at birth, they are usually detected much earlier in development than idiopathic scoliosis, which is generally diagnosed in childhood or early adolescence.
  • Degenerative scoliosis typically appears in older adults and involves a sideways or C-shaped curvature that develops slowly over time. Adult-onset scoliosis can happen even with no history of childhood scoliosis.

Degenerative scoliosis is typically the result of joints and spinal discs deteriorating more rapidly on one side than the other. Unlike other forms of scoliosis, adult-onset scoliosis may cause symptoms such as weakness, loss of balance, and significant back pain. As many as half of all adults over 60 develop some degree of degenerative scoliosis.

Risk factors

Since most cases of scoliosis are inherited, having a family history of scoliosis is the leading risk factor. In other words, if anyone in your immediate family has scoliosis, you are more likely to be diagnosed.

Aging is the leading risk factor for degenerative forms of scoliosis.

Other conditions that can cause, or increase your chances of developing, scoliosis include:

  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Spina bifida
  • Polio
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Osteogenesis imperfecta
  • Marfan syndrome
  • Friedreich ataxia
  • Syringomyelia
  • Turner syndrome
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with one of these conditions or congenital disabilities, your Dignity Health doctor can help you understand whether you may need treatment.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.