Is Your Terrible Back Pain Actually Adult Scoliosis?

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Think back to school. Do you remember marching to the nurse's office for your one and only scoliosis screening? You'd bend over, and the nurse would check (hopefully by measuring) if your spine was straight or if it had a slight curvature. That was probably the last time you thought about scoliosis, but as an adult, you might be acutely aware of your posture and back pain, and looking for a cause or explanation. There are tons of factors that can contribute to back pain or poor posture, and adult scoliosis, indeed, is one of them.
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To be clear, there's a big difference between having bad posture and having adult scoliosis, according to Daniel Gelb, MD, professor and vice chairman in the department of orthopaedics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "Scoliosis is a structural spinal deformity," which means that it can't be corrected through stretching or strengthening, Dr. Gelb says. Poor posture, on the other hand, is simply a lack of muscular effort to maintain the spine in good alignment, he says. While poor posture can be corrected, "no amount of conscious effort can correct true scoliosis."
Adult scoliosis is often linked to osteoporosis, which is more common in women. So, get comfortable and let's talk spine health, shall we?
How do you get scoliosis as an adult?
Sitting hunched at your desk all day isn't going to "give" you scoliosis. But there are two types of adult scoliosis that doctors see, and one does develop as you age, Dr. Gelb says (the other is leftover from adolescence). "As we age, we all develop degenerative changes in our spine," he says. If you grew up with a straight spine and no scoliosis, there's a chance that a disk in your spine could collapse and lead to scoliosis later on, he says. This type doesn't usually cause a curve in your back, but it can lead to radiating leg pain or difficulty walking. If you're experiencing this, see your doctor to ask if scoliosis is the culprit — even if you still have access to a school nurse, they're probably not equipped to diagnose you now.
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Is there anything you can do to prevent it?
"Leading an active, healthy lifestyle is the best defense against developing problems," Dr. Gelb says. Regular exercise, and avoiding smoking and tobacco, which can cause neck and back pain, will help, too, he says. Once scoliosis sets in, in most cases, a combination of exercise and activity modification is enough to treat discomfort associated with it. If that doesn't work, steroidal injections might be necessary, he says.
If you had scoliosis as a kid, do you need to be worried as an adult?
Adolescent scoliosis isn't really a dangerous condition, because the curves rarely reach the magnitude where it could cause other serious health issues, Dr. Gelb says. But even though you never experienced back pain from your scoliosis as a kid, it can become painful as an adult, he says. As you grow, the curves in your spine can become more severe and change the way that your body moves, which can cause shooting back pain or even numbness. If that's the case, a physical therapist can teach you some exercises to relieve the pain and strengthen the parts of your body that will help balance it out.
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