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Watching your teen’s back

» Keeping an eye out

» Who gets scoliosis?

» Straightening the spine

Scoliosis treatment: Making strides

Back in 1966, before the first of three surgeries to correct his scoliosis, Joseph O’Brien was on a stretching rack for 30 long days. And if that wasn’t bad enough, after the operation he was in a body cast for a whole year. Nowadays, O’Brien, president of the National Scoliosis Foundation, reports that children are in and out of the hospital in five days and back to school in a month.

But that’s not where treatment advances stop. Compare the Milwaukee brace, a girdle-like contraption made of heavy metal rods worn from the 1950s to the 1970s, to the Boston brace, the lightweight plastic shield worn today. What’s more, patients are now advised to wear their braces from 16 to 18 hours a day. Not only is that a significant decrease from the 23-hour recommendation of the past, it also makes it possible for children to attend school brace-free.

You watch that your teen eats the right foods. You watch that she gets enough sleep. But did you know that you should also watch her back?

Adolescence, an important time in the development of a child’s bones, is also the time when most cases of scoliosis—a sideway (lateral) curving of the spine— usually become noticeable. Viewed from behind, the spine of a person with scoliosis may look like an “S” or a “C.”

Keeping an eye out

Unfortunately, it’s easy for scoliosis to go unnoticed. That’s because it often progresses quietly during a child’s growing years, without causing pain or discomfort.

To increase the odds of detection, experts advise parents to watch for these signs of the condition: a prominent shoulder blade, uneven hips and shoulders, and leaning to one side. Clothes that just don’t seem to hang right may be another clue. Schools in nearly half of the United States also screen for scoliosis.

Who gets scoliosis?

Although researchers aren’t sure what causes scoliosis, they know it runs in families. They also know that girls make up most of the estimated 6 million Americans who have it. (Many curves progress during the growth spurt that occurs in the year before the onset of menstruation.)

Straightening the spine

All spines curve a bit. In fact, a curve that deviates about 10 degrees from the spinal column is considered normal. So it’s not surprising that when it comes to treating scoliosis, doctors talk in degrees, generally taking a wait-and-see approach for curves up to 25 degrees. But curves greater than 25 degrees normally require a brace that is designed to keep the curve from getting worse. The brace is worn until the patient reaches skeletal maturity. Spinal fusion or another form of surgery may be required for patients with curves greater than 40 degrees. While surgery may sound scary, patients often walk on their own within a few days of the procedure.

For more information, call the National Scoliosis Foundation at 800-673-6922 or visit

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