Many parents remember the days when students lined up in front of the school nurse for a scoliosis check, plus the cumbersome back braces once used to treat this abnormal curvature of the spine.
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Screenings for scoliosis are still standard practice in pediatricians’ offices and some schools, but today’s treatments are more effective and less embarrassing for adolescents.
“We often hear about it during swimsuit season, when parents notice something’s not quite right,” says orthopaedic surgeon David Gurd, MD. “Looking at your child from behind, you might see one shoulder higher than the other or the shoulder blade sticking out more on one side.”
5 things parents should know
Here are five things Dr. Gurd says parents should know if they or their pediatrician notice signs of scoliosis:
1. Scoliosis is very common. According to the Scoliosis Research Society, about one in 40 Americans has scoliosis. It can develop in kids or adults, but the typical age of onset is between ages 10 and 15.
2. Treatment isn’t always necessary. Dr. Gurd says scoliosis is evaluated in terms of degrees of spine curvature:
- A curve that’s 25 degrees or less doesn’t require treatment, just observation.
- From 26 to 45 degrees, kids can be successfully treated with bracing (see below).
- A curve that’s greater than 45 degrees typically requires surgery.
3. Braces are effective and more subtle than in the past. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found a high rate of treatment success with bracing, with 72 percent of at-risk children able to avoid surgery. Not surprisingly, the longer these kids wore the brace each day, the greater the likelihood for success. “Today’s braces are padded and low-profile so you can hide it under your clothes,” says Dr. Gurd. “Once you get used to it, it tends to be comfortable.”
4. Mild curves don’t cause long-term problems. For mild curves less than 45 degrees, it likely will stay that way for the long term. “But in these cases, kids aren’t at higher risk for back pain later in life, and they can do normal activities,” Dr. Gurd says.
5. When surgery is required, sooner is better than later. Dr. Gurd says severe curves will continue to get worse without surgery, which uses anchors and rods to correct the spine alignment. “As the curve gets bigger, it becomes stiffer and harder to treat,” he says. “As it gets larger, it can cause breathing difficulties.”
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