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Scoliosis: be informed & be inspired

Running man

Parents may worry that their child or teenager’s scoliosis or curvature of the spine, may limit participation in exercise and sport. They need only look to Usain Bolt and other athletes for inspiration. Bolt remains the fastest sprinter in track and field history, holds both world records at 100 and 200 metres, and since his youth, has maintained a strong core and back, to manage his own condition.

“The vast majority of cases of scoliosis are not worrisome, and the best treatment is to stay physically fit with strengthening exercises, moderate weight-bearing exercises, and playing sports,” says Dr. Joel Finkelstein, an orthopaedic surgeon who specializes in the treatment of spine conditions as part of the Holland Musculoskeletal Program at Sunnybrook.

Scoliosis is most often diagnosed in children and adolescents. From the side view, our spine has a natural sequence of curves at the cervical (neck), thoracic (chest) and lumbar (lower back) areas. From the front view however, the spine should be straight. With scoliosis, the spine has a C or S-shaped sideways curve. Scoliosis is defined if there is a curvature of greater than 10 degrees. Mild to moderate curves of less than 40 degrees do not significantly change the way your body moves, says Dr. Joel Finkelstein. For these curves, bracing during growth may be required. Occasionally surgery can be recommended if the curve is progressing to a larger magnitude.

“Most cases of scoliosis are the ‘idiopathic’ type, or of unknown cause, which means there is nothing you could have done to prevent the condition. It is not caused by poor posture, one leg being shorter than the other, or by carrying a heavy backpack to school,” says Dr. Finkelstein, who is also the head of the Spine division of orthopaedic surgery at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

“Scoliosis is also a painless condition,” says Dr. Finkelstein. “Back pain, which we all get from time to time, is often incorrectly linked to scoliosis as its cause”.

There are other less common types of scoliosis. About a fifth of all cases are congenital, or neuromuscular-related [pathological cause],” he says. Congenital scoliosis of the spine forms at birth. Neuromuscular scoliosis may result from the individual having a neuromuscular condition such as muscular dystrophy or spinal cord injury.

“If you have an idiopathic scoliosis, you can do anything for the most part. In fact, you can become the fastest human on the planet! If you are diagnosed, you should still make sure however, that there is no pathological cause,” says Dr. Finkelstein.

About the author

Natalie Chung-Sayers

Natalie Chung-Sayers is Sunnybrook's Communications Advisor for the Holland Musculoskeletal Program and the St. John's Rehab Program.

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