Straight talk: Scoliosis in children and how to recognize the signs

About three percent of the U.S. population is affected by spinal abnormalities, with...

About three percent of the U.S. population is affected by spinal abnormalities, with children most likely to develop scoliosis between the age of 10 to 15. Scoliosis can be hard to detect because it commonly lacks symptoms, but other indicators like a slight twist in your child's posture and walking stride, or a misaligned rib cage and shoulder girdle may be noticeable.

Although certain birth defects and rare diseases like polio or palsy are known to cause spinal abnormalities, approximately 85 percent of cases of incorrect spinal curvature are of unknown causes. Physicians generally use three age groups to categorize this common disorder of vertebral displacement and rotation referred to as idiopathic scoliosis:

  • Infantile infants, toddlers under age 3
  • Juvenile kids (4-10)
  • Adolescent young adults (11-18)

Proper early diagnosis is important because the condition can deteriorate rapidly during adolescent growth spurts. Left untreated, scoliosis can impede the movement of respiratory muscles, displace internal organs and lead to more severe cardiopulmonary complications.

Simple initial home diagnosis

1. Have your child stand upright with his bare back facing you in a relaxed, normal posture. Stand directly behind him at about arm's length, and instruct him to stare straight ahead.

2. From directly behind, look to see if one side of his face is showing more than the other. The child's head should be centered between the shoulders, with no visible twist in the neck.

3. Next, staying arm's length from your child, check that his shoulders are even at your eye level. In this position, place your hand and spread your fingers between your child's shoulder blades to verify that the scapulae are in line. Neither shoulder blade should stick out more than the other.

4. Walking around your child, carefully inspect his rib cage. Ribs should be uniform in shape and dimension from both the back and from either side.

5. Place both your hands on top of the child's hips, press down gently to see if the pelvis is level and aligned with the shoulders (not twisted).

6. Have the child bend over in a gentle arc and touch his toes while you run your fingers lengthwise down the spine to search for any subtle sways and that back and shoulder muscles do not bunch unevenly.

If you detect any abnormalities in the shape of your child's spine, your Atlanta physician will conduct a thorough examination using a scoliometer, X-rays or an MRI (for complicated cases).

Most children will not need treatment, and those with mild idiopathic scoliosis can benefit from stretching exercises and braces that help improve spinal alignment and posture. Surgical intervention like spinal fusion or other procedures may be prescribed for adolescents with severe misalignment. During adolescent growth spurts, it's a good idea to schedule an orthopedic checkup every six months, especially if pain develops in a child already diagnosed with spinal problems.

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