Scoliosis | A Definition

Everyone’s spine has natural curves. These curves round our shoulders and make our lower back curve slightly inward. But some people have spines that also curve from side to side. Unlike poor posture, these curves can’t be corrected simply by learning to stand up straight.

This condition of side-to-side spinal curves is called scoliosis. On an x-ray, the spine of a person with scoliosis looks more like an “S” or a “C” than a straight line. Some of the bones in a scoliotic spine also may have rotated slightly, making the person’s waist or shoulders appear uneven.

Spinal Curves

The spinal column is made up of 24 small bones called vertebrae. Seven of these little bones are located in the neck, twelve in the thoracic or middle back, and five in the lower back.

They stack up one on top of the other to form a straight line when viewed from front to back. When viewed from the side they form three curves – the neck and lower back lordotic (forward bending) curves, and the mid – back or kyphotic (backward bending) curve.

The average spine is not perfectly straight – almost everyone’s curves slightly to the right or the left, and sometimes there is a little twisting (rotation) of one or more vertebrae.

When the spine curves or twists excessively we have a condition called scoliosis (from the Greek word for “crooked”).

What Causes Scoliosis

In 85% to 90% of cases of scoliosis is unknown. This is called AIS or adult idiopathic scoliosis. The mystery is compounded by the fact that in all scoliosis sufferers the spinal parts – the vertebrae, discs, ligaments, tendons, and muscles – all appear to be normal (although as the scoliosis worsens one or more of these parts may develop abnormalities).

In 10% to 15% of the cases the cause of scoliosis is tumor; infection; a neuromuscular disease such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy; a birth deformity; or disc problems.

Further deepening the mystery of scoliosis is the fact that no one knows why some minor curves get worse whereas about 90% do not.

However, it should be pointed out that it is not true, as commonly thought, that poor posture is a cause of scoliosis or that women with scoliosis have more problems carrying babies to term than women who do not have the disease.

Most Lead A Normal Life

Most people with scoliosis can lead a normal life, never knowing that they have a condition. No one dies from scoliosis.

But in severe cases scoliosis sufferers can have impaired respiratory or heart function that may be due to neurological malfunction, but not from mechanical restriction of the rib cage. This is seldom a health problem in scoliosis of 30 degrees or less.

Unknown Controlling Factor

Apparently there is some unknown controlling factor or influence in scoliosis that causes healthy parts of the body to assume an unusual shape.

Some people feel that there may be a hereditary component to the disease since there’s a higher incidence among relatives than in the general population.

However, studies have not ruled out emotional factors that could as well cause occurrence to run in families. If there is anything that all scoliosis researchers can agree on, it’s that few of them agree.


Initially it was hoped that bracing would provide lasting improvement in scoliosis. This optimism arose from studies showing that curves straighten an average 50% of the time with brace application.

When bracing was followed in the long term, however, a gradual loss of correction was observed, particularly after the patient was weaned from treatment.

All the important studies of bracing show similar results. First, there is an approximately 50% improvement in the curve at about six months into treatment, after which there is a gradual lessening in the improvement.

When use of a brace is discontinued, the average curve is about 15% better than before bracing; after five years the average curve is about the same as it was prior to bracing.

These figures, however, are averaged – some patients are much better after bracing, some much worse; it seems that bracing is effective in controlling some curves but not all.


Robert Mendelsohn, M.D., has criticized the usual medical approach to scoliosis on many fronts: “Scoliosis is not serious unless the curvature of the spine is severe, but it is overtreated almost as often as it is overdiagnosed.

If your child is diagnosed as a victim of scoliosis, don’t accept surgical procedures or even bracing without first exploring all of the less radical treatment alternatives.

“Epidemiological studies on scoliosis are so scanty that we know next to nothing. There are no prospective controlled studies regarding the effects of orthotic treatment on the natural history of idiopathic scoliosis…Is anything actually prevented or is progression merely delayed until a later period of life? The answers simply are not known.”

Neurological Disturbance

New research on scoliosis shows the cause or important contributing factor to be a disturbance or defect in the area off the nervous system that controls posture, body balance, and positioning. In one study researchers were able to identify by neurological tests alone nearly 95% of the scoliotics.

The Chiropractic Approach

Chiropractors do not treat disease, scoliosis included. But they do correct spinal nerve stress – a condition that interferes with the proper functioning of the nervous system and the body as a whole. A body without spinal nerve stress is in a better position to resist abnormalities and diseases of all kinds, including scoliosis.

Recent research suggesting that scoliosis may be caused by a neurological defect reinforces the validity of the chiropractic approach – the nervous system must remain free of structural damage in order for the body to be healthy.

Scott Banks, D.C., former editor of the journal Spinal Manipulation, states that the role of chiropractic with scoliosis is supported by a “long history of empirical evidence…”

Fred Barge, D.C., author of a text on scoliosis has stated that “traditional chiropractic concepts and techniques…have shown decent clinical results in scoliosis control, reduction and correction.”

Clearly, the final word is not in on this condition. However, the evidence increasingly tells us that scoliosis sufferers should try chiropractic care.