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Scoliosis is an abnormal lateral curvature of the spine. It is most often diagnosed in childhood or early adolescence. The spine’s normal curves occur at the cervical, thoracic and lumbar regions in the so-called “sagittal” plane. These natural curves position the head over the pelvis and work as shock absorbers to distribute mechanical stress during movement. Scoliosis is often defined as spinal curvature in the “coronal” (frontal) plane.

While the degree of curvature is measured on the coronal plane, scoliosis is actually a more complex, three-dimensional problem which involves the following planes:

  • Coronal plane
  • Sagittal plane
  • Axial plane

The coronal plane is a vertical plane from head to foot and parallel to the shoulders, dividing the body into anterior (front) and posterior (back) sections. The sagittal plane divides the body into right and left halves. The axial plane is parallel to the plane of the ground and at right angles to the coronal and sagittal planes.

Scoliosis affects 2-3 percent of the population, or an estimated six to nine million people in the United States. Scoliosis can develop in infancy or early childhood. However, the primary age of onset for scoliosis is 10-15 years old, occurring equally among both genders. Females are eight times more likely to progress to a curve magnitude that requires treatment. Every year, scoliosis patients make more than 600,000 visits to private physician offices, an estimated 30,000 children are fitted with a brace and 38,000 patients undergo spinal fusion surgery. (Source: National Scoliosis Foundation, June 2007.)

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Causes of Scoliosis

Scoliosis can be classified by etiology: idiopathic, congenital or neuromuscular. Idiopathic scoliosis is the diagnosis when all other causes are excluded and comprises about 80 percent of all cases. Adolescent idiopathic scoliosis is the most common type of scoliosis and is usually diagnosed during puberty.

Congenital scoliosis results from embryological malformation of one or more vertebrae and may occur in any location of the spine. The vertebral abnormalities cause curvature and other deformities of the spine because one area of the spinal column lengthens at a slower rate than the rest. The geometry and location of the abnormalities determine the rate at which the scoliosis progresses in magnitude as the child grows. Because these abnormalities are present at birth, congenital scoliosis is usually detected at a younger age than idiopathic scoliosis.

Neuromuscular scoliosis encompasses scoliosis that is secondary to neurological or muscular diseases. This includes scoliosis associated with cerebral palsy, spinal cord trauma, muscular dystrophy, spinal muscular atrophy and spina bifida. This type of scoliosis generally progresses more rapidly than idiopathic scoliosis and often requires surgical treatment.

Symptoms & Signs

There are several signs that may indicate the possibility of scoliosis. If one or more of the following signs is noticed, schedule an appointment with a doctor.

  • Shoulders are uneven – one or both shoulder blades may stick out
  • Head is not centered directly above the pelvis
  • One or both hips are raised or unusually high
  • Rib cages are at different heights
  • Waist is uneven
  • The appearance or texture of the skin overlying the spine changes (dimples, hairy patches, color abnormalities)
  • The entire body leans to one side

In one study, about 23 percent of patients with idiopathic scoliosis presented with back pain at the time of initial diagnosis. Ten percent of these patients were found to have an underlying associated condition such as spondylolisthesis, syringomyelia, tethered cord, herniated disc or spinal tumor. If a patient with diagnosed idiopathic scoliosis has more than mild back discomfort, a thorough evaluation for another cause of pain is advised.

Due to changes in the shape and size of the thorax, idiopathic scoliosis may affect pulmonary function. Recent reports on pulmonary function testing in patients with mild to moderate idiopathic scoliosis showed diminished pulmonary function.

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