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What Parents Need to Know About Scoliosis in Children

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Affecting about 3% of children under the age of 16, scoliosis is the most common spine condition in young people. Scoliosis is a sideways curvature of the spine that most often occurs during a child’s growth spurt, just before puberty.

It’s a common misconception that heavy backpacks, lack of exercise and slouching contribute to this spine condition.

Most cases are what doctors call idiopathic, which means they don't know what the cause is. In other words, parents shouldn’t blame themselves if their child has scoliosis, as there is no known way to prevent the disorder.

However, there does appear to be a genetic component involved. So, if your child has scoliosis, their siblings may be more likely to have it, too.

Raymund Woo, MD, AdventHealth for Children Medical Director of Pediatric Orthopedic Surgery, shares more on the symptoms and treatment options for kids living with scoliosis so you can help your child minimize any mental or physical effects of a scoliosis diagnosis.

What are the common symptoms of scoliosis parents should watch for?

Most cases of scoliosis don’t have any symptoms at all. Much like children with slight hearing or vision changes, early cases can be missed. Your pediatrician and school nurse should perform scoliosis screening as part of their annual wellness visit.

How young can a child show symptoms or be diagnosed?

Most cases of scoliosis are diagnosed after age 10, when the child is in 4th or 5th grade. However, there are cases of scoliosis seen in younger children and even infants. Many of these cases have no symptoms, but children can have problems with back pain, neck pain, headaches, leg weakness, and changes in their bowel or bladder habits.

Are children still screened for scoliosis by schools or only their pediatrician?

School screening varies widely. Private schools may not incorporate this as part of their normal school nurse program. Public schools can have a school screening policy if it is approved by their county school board. However, scoliosis screening is part of every child’s regular yearly checkup with their pediatrician.

How important is it to detect scoliosis early, and how can early detection benefit kids?

Early detection and treatment are the keys to treating scoliosis because they can prevent the need for spinal fusion surgery. If detected early, scoliosis can be treated by therapy or bracing. In particular, bracing has been proven to work in 85% of patients with mild scoliosis.

What may happen if it is not caught early?

Scoliosis worsens as the child grows, so the faster the child grows, the faster the curve will worsen. If their curve is severe, your child will need surgery to have their spine fused. The goal is to catch scoliosis when it’s mild and avoid surgery through early intervention.

What are short-term and long-term treatment options?

Treatment is divided into three categories: bracing, observation and surgery.

Bracing is the most important component of short-term treatment. It works best on children who haven’t gone through puberty and is not useful after the child is skeletally mature. Generally, this is around age 14 for girls and age 16 for boys.

Observation is used for children who have a scoliosis curve that is too small for bracing, and older children who are not growing quickly. Most cases of scoliosis are treated with observation with a visit to the orthopedic surgeon for spine X-rays every six months.

Surgery, while uncommon, is the only way to treat curves that are too large for bracing. There are many surgical options and new techniques which can be discussed with the orthopedic surgeon. AdventHealth for Children can now provide radiation-free surgery in reduced time using a 7D Surgical FLASH ™ Navigation System.

We are the first and only pediatric hospital in the state of Florida to help children heal faster with this new and innovative technology. It is the first and only platform that utilizes Machine-Vision Image Guided Surgery (MvIGS) technology, meaning spine surgeons can guide their tools to the area needing treatment using a camera that’s linked to a computer in the operating room.

The new technology is similar to what is used in the latest self-driving cars. Unlike time-consuming, conventional image-guided surgery, this new tool can help achieve:

  • Efficient surgery for spine procedures
  • Elimination of unnecessary radiation exposure
  • Reduced operative time for patients

Can a child fully recover from scoliosis?

Scoliosis is not a reversible disease, hence the need for early detection and treatment. Surgery is the only way to fully correct scoliosis but comes with risks and long-term effects. However, there is lots of long-term research showing that children who have spinal surgery have very good results at 45 years after their surgery.

More Information for Parents

There’s a lot of information on the internet about scoliosis — but as with anything else, parents should turn to their pediatrician or family physician for the most up-to-date facts and guidance. Dr. Woo recommends discussing any concerns you have with a qualified pediatric orthopedic spine surgeon . We’re always here for your family’s whole health.

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