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Open Access Highly Accessed Review

The transformation of spinal curvature into spinal deformity: pathological processes and implications for treatment

Martha C Hawes1* and Joseph P O'Brien2

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Plant Pathology and Microbiology, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Arizona, Tucson AZ 85721, USA

2 National Scoliosis Foundation, 5 Cabot Place, Stoughton MA 02072, USA

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Scoliosis 2006, 1:3  doi:10.1186/1748-7161-1-3

Published: 31 March 2006

Abstract

Background

This review summarizes what is known about the pathological processes (e.g. structural and functional changes), by which spinal curvatures develop and evolve into spinal deformities.

Methods

Comprehensive review of articles (English language only) published on 'scoliosis,' whose content yielded data on the pathological changes associated with spinal curvatures. Medline, Science Citation Index and other searches yielded > 10,000 titles each of which was surveyed for content related to 'pathology' and related terms such as 'etiology,' 'inheritance,' 'pathomechanism,' 'signs and symptoms.' Additional resources included all books published on 'scoliosis' and available through the Arizona Health Sciences Library, Interlibrary Loan, or through direct contact with the authors or publishers.

Results

A lateral curvature of the spine–'scoliosis'–can develop in association with postural imbalance due to genetic defects and injury as well as pain and scarring from trauma or surgery. Irrespective of the factor that triggers its appearance, a sustained postural imbalance can result, over time, in establishment of a state of continuous asymmetric loading relative to the spinal axis. Recent studies support the longstanding hypothesis that spinal deformity results directly from such postural imbalance, irrespective of the primary trigger, because the dynamics of growth within vertebrae are altered by continuous asymmetric mechanical loading. These data suggest that, as long as growth potential remains, evolution of a spinal curvature into a spinal deformity can be prevented by reversing the state of continuous asymmetric loading.

Conclusion

Spinal curvatures can routinely be diagnosed in early stages, before pathological deformity of the vertebral elements is induced in response to asymmetric loading. Current clinical approaches involve 'watching and waiting' while mild reversible spinal curvatures develop into spinal deformities with potential to cause symptoms throughout life. Research to define patient-specific mechanics of spinal loading may allow quantification of a critical threshold at which curvature establishment and progression become inevitable, and thereby yield strategies to prevent development of spinal deformity.

Even within the normal spine there is considerable flexibility with the possibility of producing many types of curves that can be altered during the course of normal movements. To create these curves during normal movement simply requires an imbalance of forces along the spine and, extending this concept a little further, a scoliotic curve is produced simply by a small but sustained imbalance of forces along the spine. In fact I would argue that no matter what you believe to be the cause of AIS, ultimately the problem can be reduced to the production of an imbalance of forces along the spine [1].