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Curvature of the Spine: Types, Causes, and Risk Factors

All parents want their children to grow up healthy. Sometimes, however, problems can remain undetected until a physician points them out. This can be the case with curvature of the spine. Adults can also develop spinal problems and experience debilitating symptoms. Identifying the different disorders that can cause curvature of the spine and learning about their symptoms and treatments can prepare you to address potential problems in your child’s spinal health and your own.

What is curvature of the spine? 

Curvature of the spine can result from numerous spinal disorders. These can cause deformities in various spinal locations, including just above the butt, near the neck, and in the middle of the back. The spine can curve inwardly, outwardly, or sideways to form a C or S shape. 

Types of spine curvature disorders

Scoliosis 

Scoliosis is one form of lateral curvature of the spine, where it curves to form a C or S shape. Scoliosis usually appears in late childhood or early adolescence, when physical growth accelerates. Structural scoliosis is a fixed curve of the spine and may be caused by disease, injury, or infection. Some people are also born with structural scoliosis. Some scoliosis is nonstructural, which means it is non-fixed. 

One form of scoliosis is called adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS). Studies show that AIS could be related to abnormal muscle and bone growth or hormonal problems. Another form of the disease is called degenerative scoliosis. This form affects older people and is associated with the degenerative effects aging has on spinal elements, such as the discs and joints. 

Kyphosis

Kyphosis is a spinal disorder that causes a rounded or hunched back. It can often result in breathing problems and pain for people who suffer from the disease. There are numerous forms of the disease, including congenital, postural, and Scheuermann’s kyphosis.

Congenital kyphosis develops before birth. It may not be noticeable until the child is a little older since it often becomes more pronounced with growth. Postural kyphosis is an acquired form of kyphosis that can develop when a child or adolescent has a habit of slouching. Scheuermann’s kyphosis is a structural problem in the vertebrae of the spine. People with Scheuermann’s kyphosis have irregular discs, and the disease is usually detected in adolescence. 

Osteoporosis and kyphosis

Osteoporosis is a disease that causes bones to become weak and brittle. Some people with osteoporosis have fragile vertebrae that fracture easily. Fractures of the spine can cause it to be compressed or curve slightly. Sometimes the vertebrae will become so weak that they collapse, leading to severe back pain, a stoop, or kyphosis. 

Lordosis

Lordosis occurs when the bottom of the spine curves inward, causing the butt to protrude. Everyone has some degree of lordosis, but too much curving can lead to pressure on the spine and back. When lordosis occurs in children, it can sometimes correct itself. This is known as benign juvenile lordosis. 

Causes of spine curvature disorders

Diseases that cause curvature of the spine can be rooted in genetics, environmental factors, unhealthy lifestyles, and birth defects. Sometimes infections and trauma, like car accidents, can lead to spinal problems in an otherwise healthy person.  

Scoliosis can result from multiple factors or preexisting conditions. Some studies have found that osteopenia, a dysfunction in the nerves that connect the brainstem to the spine and brain, and mutations in certain genes can contribute to the development of scoliosis. 

Diabetes, thyroid problems, and tumors can also lead to kyphosis. People with other neuromuscular conditions, like cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and muscular dystrophy, can also develop kyphosis. 

Diseases that cause curvature of the spine can be rooted in genetics, environmental factors, unhealthy lifestyles, and birth defects.

Osteoporosis can lead to weakened vertebrae and brittle bones. Smoking and certain medications, such as anticonvulsants that decrease bone density, may increase the chance of developing osteoporosis later in life. Caucasian women, Asian women, and people who have family members with osteoporosis are more likely to develop the disease.

Lordosis can be caused by muscular dystrophy, a congenital defect, or another disease. One disease that causes lordosis is called spondylolisthesis, where one of the vertebrae of the spine shifts down onto the vertebra below it. Gymnastics can cause this, as can the natural degeneration of the spine that comes with age. Achondroplasia can also cause lordosis. 

Who’s at risk of developing spine curvature disorders?

Anyone can develop a spinal disorder if they have risk factors. These include an unhealthy or sedentary lifestyle and certain genetic factors. Many spinal disorders have a strong genetic background. If one of these diseases runs in your family, you may have an increased risk of developing that disease. People who drink a lot of alcohol, are inactive, or smoke have a higher chance of developing osteoporosis.

Symptoms of spine curvature disorders

Many of the symptoms of spine curvature disorders overlap. Back pain and stooping are two of the most common symptoms. A curve in the upper or middle back is often the first noticeable sign of a problem.

Symptoms of scoliosis may include back pain, fatigue, and breathing problems. Although rare, some people experience heart problems associated with scoliosis. Another symptom of scoliosis is a spine that curves.

In older people with degenerative scoliosis, pain is the primary symptom. When pain radiates down into the butt and legs, the symptoms are called axial. When a nerve is pinched, sciatica pain may result. These are called radicular symptoms. 

In people with kyphosis, their primary symptoms are often a stoop, uneven shoulder blades, a hump in the upper back, and back pain. Untreated kyphosis can lead to chronic swelling and pinched nerves. People who have kyphosis caused by osteoporosis may not experience the symptoms of the underlying disease because osteoporosis is often undetectable until an injury occurs.

The symptoms of lordosis include a protruding butt and back pain. If you’re lying on your back and there’s a large space between the base of your spine and the floor, it may indicate lordosis. If nerves are pinched, a person may also experience neurological problems.

Can a curvature of the spine be corrected?

Yes, a curvature of the spine may be corrected in most cases. The treatments for the disorders that cause lateral curvatures of the spine are similar. Doctors often use bracing if surgery is unnecessary or a last resort. In scoliosis patients, braces can correct the curve noninvasively and without the risk of surgical complications. 

If surgery is the most effective option, a surgeon may fuse two or more bones in the spine to correct the curve. A device such as a rod may be placed along the spine, such as above and below the curve. This procedure is most common when patients are still young.

Kyphosis can often be corrected with physical therapy and exercise, and a brace may be used (and surgery if needed).

Treating degenerative scoliosis focuses first on easing neurologic symptoms. Doctors usually prefer to prescribe muscle relaxers or steroid injections or both instead of surgery. Surgery on older patients can be risky, but if the disease progresses, spinal fusion may be the right choice.

Kyphosis can often be corrected with physical therapy and exercise, and a brace may be used (and surgery if needed). Treatment for lordosis often follows a similar program. Daily physical therapy that focuses on the lower back and bracing can correct the problem.

Osteoporosis can’t be reversed, but it can be managed, and its progression can be slowed. Treatment that focuses on nutrition and exercise may help bone health, and doctors may prescribe certain medications to treat osteoporosis

When to see a doctor

If you or your child have been experiencing the symptoms of scoliosis, kyphosis, or lordosis, seeing a physician as soon as possible can help prevent or delay further complications. To avoid surgery and complications, it’s a good idea to pay attention to the spinal development of your children and talk to a doctor if you see stooping; uneven legs, hips, or shoulders; or if your child complains of back pain. For older people, regular MRIs, X-rays, and physicals can alert you to problems such as osteoporosis or degenerative scoliosis before they become serious. 

The takeaway

Spinal problems can be severe, but identifying them early on and treating them as soon as possible can prevent future complications. It’s a good idea to seek medical advice throughout your child’s growing years and ensure your child receives regular physicals. 

With proper treatment and prevention, spinal disorders can be managed, and adults and children with these conditions can live happy and fulfilling lives. 

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