Scoliosis. When Is Surgery Necessary?


Spine Surgeon Dr. Praveen Kadimcherla Shares his Knowledge on Scoliosis and its Treatment Options.

What is Scoliosis

Scoliosis is a condition in which the spine, or backbone, develops a curved shape. The curve can be "S" or "C" shaped and can occur in any part of the spine, but most commonly affects the thoracic (mid-back) and lumbar (lower back) regions. Scoliosis can occur in both children and adults, but it is most commonly diagnosed during adolescence. It is not always clear what causes scoliosis, but some possible causes include genetics, neuromuscular disorders, and congenital (present at birth) conditions. Symptoms of scoliosis can include uneven shoulders, a raised hip, and a tilted waistline, but in many cases, the condition does not cause any symptoms. However, if the curvature is severe, it can lead to problems with breathing, balance, and mobility. Scoliosis can be treated with a combination of observation, physical therapy, and bracing. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to correct the curvature.

Scoliosis, characterized by an abnormal curve of the spine, is seen most often in girls between the ages of nine and fifteen. The very gradual change in the curvature of the spine usually causes no discomfort in early stages and may not be easily noticeable. It may be detected by a physician or a routine school screening, or there may be subtle changes like one hip or shoulder appearing slightly higher than the other. "Most cases of scoliosis are idiopathic, that is, they have no known cause," says Dr. Praveen Kadimcherla at Atlantic Spine Center. "And many cases never progress beyond a mild curvature. Depending on the severity of the curve and the risk of it getting worse, scoliosis is treated by observation, bracing, or in cases with the most severe curve or risk of progression, surgery."

Signs of Scoliosis

While idiopathic scoliosis accounts for 80% of cases, there are other types of the disease with known causes. In functional scoliosis, a curve in the spine develops because of a problem elsewhere in the body, such as one leg being longer than the other. Neuromuscular scoliosis is congenital, caused by abnormal development of the bones of the spine; it is usually associated with other disorders such as birth defects, cerebral palsy, or muscular dystrophy. Degenerative scoliosis occurs in older adults, usually as a result of changes in the spine due to arthritis or osteoporosis.

About the same number of boys and girls have mild idiopathic scoliosis but girls are 7-10 times more likely to have the curve progress to the point where treatment is necessary. It may be diagnosed in younger children but is most often associated with growth spurts in adolescence. Although many who develop scoliosis do not have family members who have the condition, a family history does increase risk.

When is Scoliosis Surgery Necessary

Treatment for scoliosis is determined by the degree of the curve and by the likelihood that it will get worse. In general, the risk of the curve worsening depends on its size and the amount of skeletal growth remaining. The larger the curve and the more skeletal growth remaining, the greater the risk of the curve progressing. If the curve is small when first diagnosed, it will be observed and measured every 4-6 months until the patient has reached full skeletal maturity. As long as it stays below 20-25 degrees, no further treatment is necessary. If the curve is between 25-40 degrees and the patient is still growing, a brace may be recommended; if the patient is no longer growing, bracing is unnecessary. "Bracing cannot correct the curve but can slow or stop its progression," says Dr. Kadimcherla. "If the curve progresses to more than 40-50 degrees, it is likely to continue to get worse throughout the patient's life and may eventually cause heart or lung problems. At that level of curve, surgery may be advisable."

The goals of surgery for scoliosis are to correct the curve to as close as possible to normal and to stabilize the spine to prevent the curve from progressing further. This is done by permanently fusing two or more adjacent vertebrae so that they grow together and form a single, solid bone. This stops growth in the curved portion of the spine and prevents it from getting worse. Spinal fusion surgery uses bone grafts – small pieces of bone that are placed between the vertebrae to be fused – to help the bones grow together. Metal rods hold the spine in place until fusion occurs. The rods are attached to the spine by screws, hooks, and/or wires which generally do not have to be removed. The number of vertebrae that are fused depends on the degree and location of the curve. The fused portion of the spine will be stiff following surgery but most people will have enough flexibility to perform daily activities and most sports.


Recovery after scoliosis surgery can vary depending on the type of surgery, the patient's overall health, and the severity of the scoliosis. Generally, recovery can take several months to a year or more.

After surgery, patients will typically spend several days in the hospital recovering. Pain management is an important aspect of post-operative care, and patients will be given medication to manage pain. Physical therapy will also begin during this time to help the patient regain strength and mobility in the affected area.

The first few weeks after surgery will be the most challenging for patients. They will need to limit their movements and avoid certain activities to allow the incision to heal. Patients will also need to wear a brace or corset to support the spine and help it heal in the correct position.

After about 6-8 weeks, the patient will be able to begin more aggressive physical therapy to regain strength, flexibility, and endurance. Physical therapy will be continued for several months to a year to help the patient regain their full range of motion and strength.


It's important to note that while surgery can correct the curvature of the spine, it's not always possible to completely eliminate the curve. It's also possible that the curve may return over time. Patients should work with their surgeon to develop a plan to minimize the risk of curve progression.

Recovery will be different for each individual and the recovery time can vary. With proper care, the majority of patients who have undergone scoliosis surgery will be able to return to their normal activities and enjoy a good quality of life.

"We don't know how to prevent scoliosis," says Dr. Kadimcherla, "and we cannot cure it. But we have excellent treatment options that reduce its effects and prevent its advance. Early detection is important in achieving the best possible result."