Abnormal curvature of the spine to the left or right

  • More common in females
  • Sometimes runs in families
  • Age and lifestyle are not significant factors

The spine normally forms a straight, vertical line when viewed from the back. Scoliosis is an abnormal sideways curvature of the spine, most commonly affecting the spine in the chest area and the lower back region. Scoliosis is more common in females. Early diagnosis is important because, if left untreated, the deformity can become worse.

What are the causes?

In most cases, the cause of scoliosis is unknown. Genetic factors may be involved since the condition tends to run in families. In some cases, scoliosis is congenital (present from birth). Rarely, the curvature is the result of muscle weakness around the spine or due to a neuromuscular disease such as cerebral palsy or poliomyelitis. Scoliosis may also be due to skeletal defects, such as unequal leg length. In rare cases, temporary scoliosis occurs as a result of muscle spasm following a spinal injury.

What are the symptoms?

Unless the condition is congenital or the result of a spinal injury, the symptoms develop gradually, usually during childhood or adolescence. The symptoms may include:

  • Visible curving of the spine to one side, which is more obvious when bending forwards.

  • Back pain.

  • Abnormal gait.

If scoliosis is severe, the ribcage may become deformed, sometimes leading to heart and lung problems.


In this X-ray, the upper spine curves to one side, a condition known as scoliosis. Left untreated, the curvature will increase.

What might be done?

The doctor will probably diagnose scoliosis from a physical examination and X-rays. If possible, treatment is aimed at the underlying condition. For example, if your legs are of unequal length, your doctor may recommend wearing corrective shoes.

If there is no underlying cause and the spinal curvature is slight, you will probably only need regular checkups to monitor your condition. If scoliosis is severe or is progressing rapidly, it may be necessary for you to wear a spinal brace to limit further curvature. Surgery may be necessary to fuse the affected vertebrae or to straighten the spine with metal rods and wires.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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