Turning aging spines into scoliosis: Why it happens as we grow older

As we age, our spines undergo changes that can lead to a condition called scoliosis [1].

What is scoliosis?

Scoliosis is when the spine starts to curve sideways in a way that resembles the letter “S” or “C.” This might sound complex, but let’s simplify it.

Imagine your spine as a stack of blocks, one on top of the other. When we’re young, this stack is pretty straight and balanced, like a tower of building blocks neatly aligned. But as we get older, just like a tower might lean a bit if some blocks are smaller or weaker, our spine can tilt to the side.

This tilt happens because of various factors. One big reason is that over time, our bones, discs, and muscles might not be as strong as they used to be. It’s like the building blocks of our spine aren’t as sturdy anymore so the whole structure can shift.

Also, remember how we tend to slouch or lean as we age? That can put extra pressure on our spine, causing it to curve.

When this sideways curve becomes more noticeable, we call it scoliosis. It’s not just a problem of “aging backs turning into scoliosis,” but rather a result of the natural changes in our spines as we grow older.

Think of it like this: Just as a tree might bend a little as it grows older due to changes in the environment, our spines can also curve due to changes in our bodies. So, scoliosis is less about our backs “turning into” it and more about understanding that our bodies change over time, and this change can lead to the curved spine condition known as scoliosis.

It can progress rapidly

A study by a group in Britain examined how bad the curves got while people were waiting for scoliosis surgery [2]. They looked at 61 kids, mostly around 11 years old, with curved backs.

These kids had to wait around 16 months to see a doctor and then waited about 10 more months for surgery. Shockingly, the curves got way worse for 12 kids.

Because of that, 10 needed more extensive surgeries than originally planned. At first, their curves were around 48 degrees, but they jumped to 58 degrees by surgery time.

Unfortunately, even the kids with smaller curves at the start saw their curves get bigger. The study wanted to look at kids with curves that might need surgery, but they checked kids with curves as small as 17 degrees.

A curve of 90 degrees would need surgery, but 17 degrees wouldn’t. By the end of the study, though, the smallest curve was 30 degrees and the biggest was 120 degrees. Even though smaller curves are easier to fix, a 30-degree curve can still be treated well with a special brace.

This study teaches us that getting the right information about scoliosis matters. In a different study, most kids with scoliosis got way better without surgery [3]. Only 4.9% needed it.

Scoliosis in older individuals

Now, let’s talk about scoliosis in grown-ups. When childhood scoliosis continues into adulthood, it usually changes slowly, and we can predict how.

Adult scoliosis can be categorized into two types: the first originates during the teenage years and continues into adulthood, while the second emerges later in life and is associated with osteoarthritis and the degeneration of the spine [4].

But as we age, there’s another kind of scoliosis to watch out for. It’s called “degenerative” scoliosis.

It happens because our back discs wear down over time, and it’s standard, especially in people over 60. This type doesn’t get worse as quickly, but it can still mess up your life if you don’t treat it right [5].

Older folks with degenerative scoliosis might often feel pain in their back and legs. It’s hard for them to walk or stand without hurting. They might lean to one side when they stand up, which worsens the longer they’re on their feet.

Standard treatments like going to a chiropractor or physiotherapy might not help much, and they can’t get surgery if their bones are weak. But these individuals can often get help from a soft brace that supports their back and keeps them standing straighter. This lets them walk and stand more comfortably for longer.

In conclusion, understanding the dynamic nature of scoliosis, seeking early intervention and exploring suitable treatments can make a significant difference in managing the condition, whether during childhood or in later stages of life.

[1] https://www.aans.org/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Scoliosis
[2] https://boneandjoint.org.uk/Article/10.1302/0301-620X.88BSUPP_II.0880225c
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8593288/
[4] https://www.wafb.com/2023/08/14/your-health-aging-backs-turning-into-scoliosis/
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20881515

Photograph: borodai/Envato
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