What happens if scoliosis is left untreated in adults?

A curving spine can lead to many other health issues if ignored

You might not even know you have scoliosis if it’s mild enough. But it’s something you should become aware of, since it can progress and further affect your health as you age, in various ways. The good news is, there are actions you can take to manage and mitigate these effects, including physiotherapy`.

Read More: Who Can Benefit from Physiotherapy, and How Does It Help?

Scoliosis overview

Let’s start with a primer: What the heck is scoliosis, anyway, and how does it affect the body?

What is scoliosis?

Scoliosis is a condition where the spine develops a curve toward the side of your body or excessively toward the front. (This is not to be confused with the natural curves of your spine.) It can develop either when you’re a child or as an older adult.

What is adult scoliosis?

Adult scoliosis results from either an untreated/undiagnosed curvature from youth or the degeneration of the spine, generally due to conditions like osteoporosis or arthritis.

What part of the spine is affected?

Any section of the spine can be affected by scoliosis, but it’s most common in the lower back or upper part of the spine.

Read More: Top 10 Reasons to See a Physiotherapist

How fast does it progress?

In people who have moderate or severe curves in their spine (25 degrees or greater), the curve can continue to increase by a degree or two each year as you age.

What are the side effects and symptoms of untreated scoliosis?

Pain is the biggest symptom of untreated scoliosis. Other side effects can include degeneration of the spinal discs and other spinal damage. It also leaves you vulnerable to developing other degenerative conditions like arthritis and osteoporosis.

What happens if it is left untreated in adults

In children with mild scoliosis, a “watch and wait” approach is often taken in lieu of treatments like bracing or surgery. But if you have scoliosis as an adult, you can develop some serious physical issues if you leave it untreated.

Radiating pain in the back, neck, arms, legs, and feet

The pain is what usually gets people with adult scoliosis into their doctor’s offices. It can be constant or intermittent, usually radiating from the back into the legs and feet, the arms and hands, or the neck.

Shoulder and hip misalignment

The scoliosis curve can cause one of your shoulders or hips to sit higher than the other, even when you’re standing up as straight as you can. This can lead to constant pain, and many people also find they don’t like how it makes them look.

Rib deformity

Your ribs may become deformed, pressing upward or outward from where they should be — you can even develop a “rib hump” that clearly protrudes from your back when you bend forward.

Off-centered waistline

If one of your hips is higher than the other, your waistline will consequently be angled as well, so clothing may not fall properly at your waist, and being seated might be uncomfortable.

Arms and legs that seem to hang at different lengths

Similarly, if one of your shoulders or hips is elevated by your spinal curve, your arms or legs may appear to be different lengths, which both looks odd and can impede walking or other movements.

Head uncentered over the torso

Your head is atop your neck, which is part of your spine, so if it’s curved to one side, your head may appear not to be centred over your shoulders.

An overall asymmetrical appearance to the body

Scoliosis curves can occur anywhere in the spine and vary significantly in severity, so the asymmetry they cause in the body can also vary widely, but it can be quite pronounced.

Compromised organ functionality

If your spine and ribs push against your lungs, stomach, or other internal organs, their function can be compromised. For example, your stomach might feel full even when you have not eaten much, or you may experience shortness of breath even when at rest.

Mobility issues

Walking and rising from a seated position can be difficult and painful if you have a severe curve in your spine, and you may require mobility aids to get around.

The role of exercise

According to medical professionals, the worst thing you can do if you have scoliosis is to stop moving. Exercise to strengthen your back and core (abdominal) muscles may help slow the progression of scoliosis and reduce back pain. Stronger muscles help to hold up your body straighter, making it harder for a curve in your spine to get worse.

The importance of treatment

Physiotherapy is an excellent first step in treating adult scoliosis. The stretching and strengthening exercises that a physiotherapist will help you perform may ease your pain and improve your range of motion as well as slowing the progression of scoliosis curvature. Chiropractic treatment has also been shown to reduce pain and disability in adults with moderate to severe scoliosis.

Read More: Chiro or Physio: How to Determine Which Is Best for You

Determining which treatment is best for You

Physiotherapy and chiropractic treatment are both good options for adults suffering from scoliosis. But which one is right for you? Since both can offer similar treatment, the right choice for you will likely depend on your symptoms and the severity of your curvature. Talk to your practitioner and see what they recommend.

Read More: 11 Benefits of Physiotherapy That Lead to Improved Wellbeing

The takeaway

Remember, it’s never too late to start physiotherapy treatment for adult scoliosis, but the sooner you begin, the faster you’ll reap its many benefits and experience less pain, improved well-being, and greater quality of life.

Michael McCreight, Registered Physiotherapist

Mike is an experienced and talented physiotherapist who holds a BSc in human kinetics and an MSc in physiotherapy. He doesn't believe in a “one-size-fits-all” approach and is committed to providing client-centred care, tailoring each treatment plan to each patient’s unique needs and personal goals.

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