8 Surprising Ways Scoliosis Can Affect the Body
8 Surprising Ways Scoliosis Can Affect the Body
Scoliosis can affect the body in unusual ways. From reproductive consequences to lung dysfunction, the widespread impact of scoliosis on your organs may surprise you.
Before we look more closely at scoliosis symptoms, let’s quickly review some scoliosis basics.
What is Scoliosis?
When you were in elementary school, did you ever undergo a scoliosis screening? If you did, then the school nurse probably examined your posture, observing your back as you touched your toes.
Little did you know then, but the school nurse was having you perform a classic screener for scoliosis: The Adam’s Forward Bend Test.
Specifically, your nurse was looking for evidence of asymmetry in your bodily alignment. Did your hips align? Was one shoulder blade raised higher than the other? Did one side of your ribs protrude unnaturally?
All of these indicators can signal the presence of scoliosis, an abnormal sideways curvature in the spine.
To explain why this is so problematic, let’s first correct a commonly held misconception:
Your spine isn’t perfectly straight.
This may come as a surprise, especially if your elders always warned you to “Stand up straight!”
In reality, your spine contains a series of gentle curves. When viewed from the side, the spine should contain a slight forward curve in the upper back and a subtle indentation in the lower spine. However, when seen from the back, the spine should appear perfectly straight.
In individuals with scoliosis, an S-shaped curve appears where it should not—snaking from the left to the right side of the torso (or vice versa).
Determining the Severity of Your Scoliosis
Exactly how much deviation from “perfect” do doctors consider abnormal?
Anything more than 10 degrees from a “typical” position. Additionally, you may hear your doctor refer to this amount of deviation as the Cobb angle.
For curves measuring more than 40 degrees, the spine may require surgery to realign.
As the Cobb angle increases, the impact on non-skeletal organs also increases. For example, a patient with a 70-degree Cobb angle may experience cardiac symptoms, digestive interruption, and more.
Without further delay, let’s examine how scoliosis can affect our bodies.
1. It causes visible skeletal deformities.
Remember the Adam’s Forward Bend Test? It has been the gold standard for early scoliosis detection since 1865.
Why is it so effective?
Because scoliosis is so visible to the naked eye.
First and foremost, scoliosis affects the body by creating obvious asymmetries in the skeletal system. For example, common external signs of scoliosis include:
- Uneven eye tilt
- Uneven slanting of the shoulders from left to right
- A single shoulder blade protrudes more prominently
- Ribs stick out on one side of the body
- Torso leans more in one direction
- Unbalanced hip alignment
- Inconsistency between leg lengths
- Clothing hangs askew on the body
2. It interferes with signals from your nervous system.
When your spine curves abnormally to one side, it compresses nerves along the inner curve and stretches them along the outer.
As a result, your nerves struggle to conduct important signals regarding sensation to and from your extremities.
Have you ever experienced an icy-hot or tingling sensation in your arms or legs? We can liken this pins-and-needles sensation to the radio static caused by interference from poor weather conditions. Just as lighting interrupts radio reception, so too can scoliosis disrupt signals from the body to the brain.
The result? A form of radiating pain known as radiculopathy.
Aside from tingling pain, radiculopathy can affect both fine and gross motor control. (Fine motor control involves using small muscles to complete intricate tasks like snapping Legos together. In contrast, gross motor control involves recruiting your large muscle groups to complete big-movement tasks like jogging.)
In particularly severe cases, radiculopathy can also affect the nerves that control your bowels and bladder, resulting in incontinence.
3. It results in painful muscular imbalances.
Scoliosis can arise from a variety of causes—most of which are unknown (or idiopathic). Individuals with idiopathic scoliosis often over-compensate for their postural imbalances by using their muscles in unintended ways.
In a vicious cycle, improper muscle use leads to even worse posture and, ultimately, chronic back pain.
Unlike individuals with idiopathic scoliosis, patients with neuromuscular scoliosis have underlying disorders that affect the spine. These conditions—such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and spinal cord injuries—cause the muscles to pull against the spine or go completely slack. Over time, these muscular imbalances can result in scoliosis.
4. It prevents CSF from recirculating to your brain.
We all know that spinal issues, particularly those that affect the neck (or cervical spine), can cause headaches. Those pesky muscular imbalances that we discussed in the previous section? Specifically, these can result in tension headaches.
However, scoliosis patients face an additional challenge. Scoliosis prevents the recirculation of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to your brain. Reduced levels of CSF in the brain can intensify a simple tension headache into a full-blown migraine.
5. It interrupts your digestive processes.
Whenever your spine deviates from its normal position, it takes up prime real estate that would otherwise be reserved for your organs.
Who typically loses out? Often, the primary players in your digestive system—the esophagus, stomach, and intestines—suffer the consequences.
Digestion begins in the mouth with chewing and then swallowing. The muscular tube of your esophagus then conducts the ingested food from your mouth to your stomach. However, in individuals with severe scoliosis, the facial muscles that enable chewing can suffer dysfunction. Likewise, the abnormal curvature of the neck can constrict the esophagus, making it difficult to swallow.
Let’s move further along your digestive tract.
Next, your stomach and small intestines break down complex molecules (i.e., foods) into their constituent nutrients. Essential nutrients pass from the small intestine to the bloodstream via a process called absorption. Unnecessary byproducts travel onward to the large intestine, which directs their excretion.
That is, when everything goes according to plan.
Compression of the stomach and intestines due to scoliosis can result in the following digestive issues:
- Failure to adequately absorb essential nutrients
- Painful build-up of stomach acid, resulting in acid reflux and nausea
- Feeling full before your nutritional needs are met
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Weight loss
6. It compromises the female reproductive system.
This is the classic “which came first – the chicken or the egg” dilemma.
We know that adolescent females with scoliosis are more likely to experience their first menstrual cycle later than their peers. Evidence also suggests that scoliosis is associated with irregular periods.
However, some researchers now believe that low levels of certain female hormones—particularly progesterone—may actually cause scoliosis.
This may explain why adolescent idiopathic scoliosis is ten times more common in girls than in boys.
7. It reduces your cardiac output and respiratory capacity.
Scoliosis can interfere with your ability to take full, deep breaths.
This is especially true for individuals who have severe scoliosis curves measuring more than 80 degrees.
Because your ribs attach to your spine. When your spine rotates, it forces your ribs to contort in unusual ways.
Externally, this manifests as what doctors refer to as a unilateral rib prominence (or a one-sided rib hump). Internally, the rib cage cannot expand fully enough to deliver an adequate oxygen supply to the lungs. As a result, an individual may feel chronically short of breath.
Similarly, severe scoliosis can reduce your cardiac output. Just as the lungs require room to expand, the heart also requires space to beat. In the most severe cases, this can lead to premature heart failure. More often, this causes the heart to work harder than is strictly necessary and results in mitral valve prolapse.
8. It can impair your mental health.
Because scoliosis results in visible spinal deformities, it can negatively affect your body image, and accordingly, your mental health. In fact, studies reveal that individuals with scoliosis experience elevated levels of:
- Anger and aggression
- Reduced self-esteem
- Risk-taking and rule-breaking
- Negative body image and body dysmorphia
- Eating disorders
- Increased suicidality and self-harm
A total body approach to addressing scoliosis, therefore, should promote self-love and self-care. Ask your doctor to connect you with resources for safeguarding your mental health.
Looking for Total Body Scoliosis Care?
Your search ends here.
Dr. Jason Lowenstein is a board-certified, fellowship-trained adult and pediatric spine surgeon with over 15 years of scoliosis experience. As the Director of Scoliosis & Spinal Deformity Care at Morristown Medical Center, Dr. Lowenstein serves as an international referral source for treatment-resistant cases of scoliosis.
Using the latest advancements in scoliosis treatment, Dr. Lowenstein collaborates with industry-leading professionals to bring total body scoliosis care to his patients. Popular interventions include:
- Physical and occupational therapy (including the Schroth Method)
- Pain management
- Chiropractic care
- Massage therapy
- Scoliosis bracing
- Scoliosis growing rods
- Fusionless correction systems such as Vertebral Body Tethering
- Minimally invasive spine surgery
- Spinal fusion
- And more
To learn about how total body scoliosis treatment can transform your recovery, contact our patient advocates today!