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In general, the severity of the scoliosis depends on the degree of the curvature and whether it threatens vital organs, specifically the lungs and heart.
Some experts argue that simply measuring the degree of the curve may not identify patients in the moderate and severe groups who are at greatest risk for lung problems. Other factors (spinal flexibility, the extent of asymmetry between the ribs and the vertebrae) may be more important in predicting severity in this group.
Scoliosis is associated with osteopenia, a condition characterized by loss of bone mass. Many adolescent girls who have scoliosis also have osteopenia. Some experts recommend measuring bone mineral density when a patient is diagnosed with scoliosis. The amount of bone loss may help predict how severely the spine will curve. Preventing and treating osteopenia may help limit further curve progression.
If not treated, osteopenia can later develop into osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a more serious loss of bone density that is common among postmenopausal women. Adolescents who have scoliosis are at increased risk of developing osteoporosis later in life. [For more information, see In-Depth Report#18: Osteoporosis.]
After 20 years or more, scoliosis patients who were previously treated with surgery experience small but significant physical impairments (mainly mild back problems), compared to their peers without scoliosis. More people with a history of scoliosis report having to take days off from work, compared to people who never had the condition. In general, however, most patients experienced a similar quality of life to peers who never had the condition.
The following are some possible causes of later back problems in people with a history of treated scoliosis:
Evidence suggests that previous treatment with braces may also cause mild back pain and more days off, but problems appear to be less than with surgery. In one study, dysfunction was comparable to people without a history of scoliosis.
Pain in adult-onset or untreated childhood scoliosis often develops because of posture problems that cause uneven stresses on the back, hips, shoulders, necks, and legs.
Many individuals with untreated scoliosis will develop spondylosis, an arthritic condition in the spine. The joints become inflamed, the cartilage that cushions the disks may thin, and bone spurs may develop. If the disk degenerates or the curvature progresses to the point that the spinal vertebrae begin pressing on the nerves, pain can be very severe and may require surgery. Even surgically treated patients are at risk for spondylosis if inflammation occurs in vertebrae around the fusion site.
Emotional Impact in Childhood. The emotional impact of scoliosis, particularly on young girls or boys during their most vulnerable years, should not be underestimated. Adults who have had scoliosis and its treatments often recall significant social isolation and physical pain. Follow-up studies of children who had faced scoliosis without having strong family and professional support often report significant behavioral problems. Fortunately, current treatments are solving many of the problems that previous generations had to deal with, including unsightly bracing and extremely painful surgeries with little pain control.
Emotional Effects in Adults. Of some concern are the growing numbers of adults with scoliosis. This group experiences considerable problems in general health, social functioning, emotional and mental health, and pain.
Older people with a history of treated scoliosis may carry negative emotional events into adulthood that have their roots in their early experiences with scoliosis. Patients who were treated for scoliosis may often have limited social activities, a poorer body image, and slight negative effect on their sexual life. Pain appears to be only a minor reason for such limitation.
Women who have been successfully treated for scoliosis have only minor or no additional risks at all for complications during pregnancy and delivery. A history of scoliosis does not endanger the child. Pregnancy itself, even multiple pregnancies, does not increase the risk for curve progression. Women who have severe scoliosis that restricts the lungs, however, should be monitored closely.
Patients with severe deformities, particularly those with underlying neuromuscular disorders, may develop what is called restrictive thoracic disease. This term refers to problems in breathing and, at times, trouble obtaining enough oxygen due to a smaller chest cavity. This smaller chest cavity results from the deformities or surgery. The restricted chest cavity is also less able to expand when breathing.
Some evidence suggests a slightly higher risk for breast cancer and leukemia in patients who had multiple x-rays. Risks are highest in patients who had the largest radiation exposure, such as those who had been surgically treated.
Patients who simply received x-rays for untreated idiopathic scoliosis, or scoliosis caused by uneven length of the legs or hip abnormalities have a very low risk for future complications.
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