Did you know that up to half of school children in sub-Saharan Africa have scoliosis? In fact, scoliosis is considered the most common spinal deformity in children worldwide. Sounds scary right? Let’s unpack what scoliosis is and if this is even cause for concern in your child.
The spine has natural curvatures which are designed to keep the back strong and supportive – these are “good” curves. Sometimes the body develops a different kind of curvature, which we call a lateral deviation or sideways curve and can also cause rotation through the bones of the spine. This is what we call a scoliosis. There can be many causes of scoliosis but generally we categorise these into structural and functional. A structural scoliosis refers to a curve that has developed as a result of a physical curve in the body such as a vertebra that is a smaller on one side, a leg bone that is shorter or even muscle disorders such as cerebral palsy. Functional scoliosis is where the spine appears to be curved but it is not due to a permanent defect. This could be something like a muscle spasm pulling the back on side, wearing a heavy bag over one shoulder causing abnormal posture or a flattened arch on one side giving the appearance of a shorter leg. Structural scoliosis is considered more “permanent” whereas functional scoliosis may easily be rectified when the irregularity is addressed.
There is good news with scoliosis – majority of cases are mild and pain-free regardless of if its due to a structural or functional issue. You may have a mild scoliosis yourself and never know. In extreme cases it can be dangerous if the curve is significant enough to start compressing the heart and lungs within the chest cavity, but most of the time a scoliosis will have little harm. In cases with back pain, it is important to find out what is causing the pain. If it is a muscle spasm it would easily be resolved with some soft tissue therapy or if it is due to a dropped arch in the foot we may consider orthotics to balance out the leg length imbalance. X-rays may be considered if the curve is more obvious and we need to see what is going on inside with the bones and joints. Most scoliosis cases are treated with manual therapy such as adjustments, dry needling or soft tissue release as well as addressing lifestyle factors. In kids, we will monitor the curve closely, especially as a child approaches puberty as this can be an important age for curve development due to the rapid growth spurt. When a curve is at a certain measurement, we may consider bracing or a referral to a specialist.
While the causes of scoliosis can be unique to your child’s lifestyle, there are some common things to look out for. Ensure your child wears their backpack over both shoulders and doesn’t overload it with heavy textbooks and files. Encourage them to carry some of the heavier items instead to even out the load. Make sure they take regular study breaks to avoid sitting in awkward positions for too long. It is always worth investing in a supportive shoe as they will spend most of their time in this. If you are concerned about a possible scoliosis, it may be worth having a consultation with a chiropractor who will be able to screen for scoliosis and guide you and your child.
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