Can scoliosis happen to adults?

The cause of scoliosis is multiple. In the most common type of scoliosis (idiopathic adolescent scoliosis), the cause is officially unknown.

Q: I have been having backaches and stiffness in my upper back for the past several years. I usually try to ignore the back pain, take painkillers or go for a massage.

Recently, I had to take a routine chest/lung x-ray. The result showed a slight 'S' curve in my spine; the radiographer and doctor noted "mild scoliosis in the mid-thoracic region" in the report. I have had standard health examinations (including x-rays) in the past and this is the first time scoliosis was detected.

I'm already in my 30s - can scoliosis begin in adults too? What causes it and will it get worse? Could this be the cause of my persistent back discomfort? What are my treatment options, short of surgery? What lifestyle modifications would you recommend?

A: Scoliosis usually begins in the teenage years, and in your case, the magnitude maybe small and thus it might not have been detected.

The cause of scoliosis is multiple. In the most common type of scoliosis (idiopathic adolescent scoliosis), the cause is officially unknown, but recent studies have suggested a genetic linkage.

If the degree of scoliosis at full maturity is small ie less than 35 degrees, it is unlikely the scoliosis will worsen. Since the scoliosis is not severe, it is unlikely to cause your pain directly. The cause is likely a degenerative or wear and tear condition of your discs, the cushions between the vertebrae or bones of the spine.

Treatment options of these degenerative conditions are conservative first, eg physiotherapy, acupuncture, and medications. Lifestyle modification is also important, eg stop smoking, reduce weight, adopt correct back postures, regular low impact exercises eg swimming.

Answer provided by Adjunct Associate Professor Hee Hwan Tak, Singapore Medical Group's Medical Director, SMG Orthopaedic Group and Centre for Spine & Scoliosis Surgery

E-mail your health queries to a1health@sph.com.sg.

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