Idiopathic scoliosis refers to the 80 to 85 percent of scoliosis cases in which the cause is unknown. Scoliosis is a spinal deformity which causes an abnormal curvature of the spine. When viewed from behind, a normal spine appears straight. Scoliosis causes the spine to show a lateral or side-to-side curvature which makes the person appear to be leaning to one side. When the spine is shaped like a “C” or an “S” and the curvature is 10 degrees or greater, you will be diagnosed with scoliosis. Scoliosis is more common in girls than in boys and usually occurs in people more than 10 years of age. The majority of people afflicted with idiopathic scoliosis are adolescent girls.
Although research is ongoing, there are still no identifiable causes for idiopathic scoliosis. According to the Scoliosis Research Society (SRS), most patients afflicted with idiopathic scoliosis are otherwise healthy and have no previous medical history associated with this disease. However, there does appear to be a genetic connection, since 30 percent of idiopathic scoliosis patients have some family history of the disease. SRS is steadily working to identify the genes associated with idiopathic scoliosis, and their knowledge is expanding rapidly.
Researchers are investigating many possible causes for idiopathic scoliosis such as:
- Genes – The CHD7 gene has been identified and linked to idiopathic scoliosis. It appears that variations of this gene can make people more susceptible to idiopathic scoliosis, though it is still unclear how.
- Physical abnormalities – Researchers are attempting to identify a connection between scoliosis and muscle or bone imbalances caused by abnormalities.
- Coordination problems – Inherited defects in perception and coordination are thought to be possible links to unusual growth in children’s spines.
- Other biological factors – Elevated levels of enzyme growth in spinal discs and abnormalities in the calcium-binding protein also are being researched for their possible roles in idiopathic scoliosis.
Idiopathic scoliosis usually does not cause pain or neurological symptoms in the early stages. In the beginning of the disease there is no pressure put on the internal organs by the curvature of the spine, so symptoms such as shortness of breath usually are not present. Symptoms can include:
- Discrepancy in leg length – In some cases of idiopathic scoliosis, the legs can be different lengths and can cause the scoliosis.
- Abnormal gait – Walking can become more difficult as the scoliosis becomes more severe.
- Uneven hips – The curved spine can directly affect the hips, and therefore affect the legs and walking ability.
- Uneven shoulder height – One shoulder tends to be higher than the other, following the curvature of the spine.
More severe and untreated cases of idiopathic scoliosis can include the following symptoms:
- Breathing problems – When the condition is left untreated, the vertebrae will rotate into the rib cage, which can in turn compromise the heart and lungs. Usually this occurs with severe cases of scoliosis.
- Severe pain – This will occur if idiopathic scoliosis is left untreated for too long and is affecting the lumbar spine. Back pain is uncommon in scoliosis.
- Severe spinal deformity
- Physical disability
Treatments for idiopathic scoliosis depend upon the severity of the condition and range from nonsurgical treatments such as bracing to the more invasive spinal fusion surgery.
The multidisciplinary team of spine experts at Northwell Health Orthopaedic Institute treats idiopathic scoliosis as well as a broad range of spine conditions that can occur at any stage of life.