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Overview of scoliosis in children

Iwituararo koropiko ki ngā tamariki

Four types of scoliosis, depending on where the curve is. Thoracolumbar, the curve is in the middle. Thoracic the curve is at the tope. Lumbar, the curve is at the bottom. Double, there is a curve at the top and at the bottom.If someone has scoliosis, it means their spine curves sideways.

Scoliosis makes the bones in a person's spine (vertebrae) twist or rotate, so that instead of looking like a straight line down the middle of their back, their spine looks more like the letter C or S.

Curves most commonly happen in a person's upper or middle back (their thoracic spine), but they can involve the whole spine.

Scoliosis can happen to people of any age, but it most often starts in tamariki (children) when they are between 10 and 15. It tends to get worse as they grow and doesn't usually get better without treatment. But it is not usually a sign of anything serious.

If a tamaiti (child) has mild scoliosis that first shows in adolescence, they may never need treatment. But if a young tamaiti develops scoliosis or if it rapidly gets worse, they will need treatment to stop it from causing problems. Mild scoliosis will not get worse once a tamaiti stops growing, but if it's severe, the scoliosis will continue to get worse.

Causes of scoliosis in children

As well as defining scoliosis by where in the spine it starts, we also define it by what causes it. In tamariki there are three types: idiopathic, congenital, and neuromuscular.

Idiopathic scoliosis

Idiopathic (id-e-o-pa-thik) simply means we do not know the cause. Around 80% of cases of scoliosis in tamariki are this type.

Most cases of idiopathic scoliosis happen between the age of 10 and the time a tamaiti is fully grown. Boys and girls can both get it, but girls are likely to have more serious curves that need medical treatment.

Congenital scoliosis

Congenital (kon-gen-it-al) means something a pēpi (baby) is born with. Problems sometimes develop in the spine as the pēpi is growing in the womb. Pēpi with congenital scoliosis may have spinal bones that are not fully formed, or that are fused together. Congenital scoliosis usually starts earlier than idiopathic scoliosis and is more likely to need treatment.

Neuromuscular scoliosis

Neuromuscular (new-ro-mus-cue-lar) means related to the muscles and nerves. Conditions that affect our muscles and nerves, such as muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy, can cause imbalance or weakness in the muscles that support the spine, leading to scoliosis.

Symptoms of scoliosis in children

Tamariki with mild scoliosis often go undiagnosed until they hit a growth spurt during puberty. As they grow rapidly, some signs will become more obvious. You may notice:

Scoliosis in tamariki is not usually painful.

Scoliosis can change a child's posture and the way they walk. Because it changes the shape of the chest, it can also affect the way their lungs and other organs work.

Diagnosing scoliosis in children

If you think your tamaiti has scoliosis, it's important to take them to see their GP.

The GP will examine their spine, checking where and how pronounced the curve is. They will also check for anything that may cause a problem with their spine, such as differences in the length of their hips, nervous system problems or other physical issues.

Unless there are signs the curve is likely to get worse, your tamaiti probably will not need an X-ray. Your GP will monitor them to make sure the curve is not getting worse.

Treating scoliosis in children

Treatment for scoliosis depends on the type your tamaiti has, how severe it is and how much more growing your tamaiti has to do. Mild scoliosis doesn’t usually need to be treated but more severe forms may need surgery. See Treating scoliosis in children for more information.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed June 2022.


Page reference: 381987

Review key: HISCO-381984