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Adolescent idiopathic scoliosis: natural history and long term treatment effects

Marc A Asher* and Douglas C Burton

Author Affiliations

Department of Orthopedic Surgery, University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, KS, USA

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Scoliosis 2006, 1:2  doi:10.1186/1748-7161-1-2

Published: 31 March 2006


Adolescent idiopathic scoliosis is a lifetime, probably systemic condition of unknown cause, resulting in a spinal curve or curves of ten degrees or more in about 2.5% of most populations. However, in only about 0.25% does the curve progress to the point that treatment is warranted.

Untreated, adolescent idiopathic scoliosis does not increase mortality rate, even though on rare occasions it can progress to the >100° range and cause premature death. The rate of shortness of breath is not increased, although patients with 50° curves at maturity or 80° curves during adulthood are at increased risk of developing shortness of breath. Compared to non-scoliotic controls, most patients with untreated adolescent idiopathic scoliosis function at or near normal levels. They do have increased pain prevalence and may or may not have increased pain severity. Self-image is often decreased. Mental health is usually not affected. Social function, including marriage and childbearing may be affected, but only at the threshold of relatively larger curves.

Non-operative treatment consists of bracing for curves of 25° to 35° or 40° in patients with one to two years or more of growth remaining. Curve progression of ≥ 6° is 20 to 40% more likely with observation than with bracing. Operative treatment consists of instrumentation and arthrodesis to realign and stabilize the most affected portion of the spine. Lasting curve improvement of approximately 40% is usually achieved.

In the most completely studied series to date, at 20 to 28 years follow-up both braced and operated patients had similar, significant, and clinically meaningful reduced function and increased pain compared to non-scoliotic controls. However, their function and pain scores were much closer to normal than patient groups with other, more serious conditions.

Risks associated with treatment include temporary decrease in self-image in braced patients. Operated patients face the usual risks of major surgery, a 6 to 29% chance of requiring re-operation, and the remote possibility of developing a pain management problem.

Knowledge of adolescent idiopathic scoliosis natural history and long-term treatment effects is and will always remain somewhat incomplete. However, enough is know to provide patients and parents the information needed to make informed decisions about management options.