How Scoliosis Affects the Body

Peter G. Passias, M.D. FAAOS ORTHOPEDIC SPINE SURGEON

How Scoliosis Affects the Body

By: Peter G. Passias, M.D. FAAOS

Dr. Passias’ is a world leader in the surgical treatment of spinal disorders. His clinical practice focuses on the treatment of both degenerative conditions of the spine, with an emphasis on complex spinal deformities including thoracolumbar revision procedures and scoliosis.

The spine might seem like it stands alone, but it’s actually intricately linked to your entire body, particularly because it links directly to your brain. When your spine is misaligned, it can affect the rest of your body in numerous ways — disrupting that brain-body connection. As a result, scoliosis can impact your body’s overall health.

What Is Scoliosis?

Scoliosis is a spinal condition involving an abnormal spinal curvature. While the spine has natural curves at the lumbar, thoracic and cervical regions, they form a straight line in the center of the back. With scoliosis, the spine curves to the side instead of keeping its normal straight curvature. The three main types of scoliosis are:

  • Idiopathic: Idiopathic scoliosis comprises 80% of all scoliosis cases and is diagnosed when no definitive cause is apparent. This scoliosis type is usually diagnosed in adolescence.
  • Congenital: With congenital scoliosis, patients are born with abnormal curvature of the spine due to the malformation of one or more vertebrae while in the womb. This malformation can occur in any part of the spine. Since congenital scoliosis is present in patients at birth, it’s usually detected in patients at a young age.
  • Neuromuscular: If you’re diagnosed with neuromuscular scoliosis, an underlying condition is likely the cause of the abnormal spinal curvature. These conditions include cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida or spinal cord trauma. Neuromuscular scoliosis usually progresses quicker than idiopathic scoliosis, so surgery is often needed.

When mild, scoliosis presents few to no symptoms. Alternatively, severe scoliosis can cause widespread problems in your body. Over time, mild scoliosis can worsen as a person ages and their spine develops. For this reason, doctors closely monitor children with mild scoliosis with X-ray imaging and routine checkups to see if their conditions worsen.

8 Ways Scoliosis Can Impact the Body

Scoliosis can affect various parts of the body, including the lungs, heart, brain, digestive system, muscles, nervous system, reproductive system and mental health.

1. Lungs

Severe scoliosis can significantly weaken lung function and is even associated with respiratory failure in adulthood. The weakening effects scoliosis has on the lungs are usually restrictive, as the abnormal curvature of the spine disrupts regular lung function. To be specific, severe scoliosis disrupts lung function by:

  • Reducing lung volume
  • Limiting diaphragm movement
  • Weakening the chest wall muscle
  • Narrowing the airways
  • Causing bronchial compression

If scoliosis affects your lungs in one or more of these ways, you’ll likely experience some difficulty breathing. When the spine has an abnormal curvature, it often contorts the ribs. This means they can’t expand enough to allow a full breath. Because of the limited diaphragm movement, you may find it challenging to take deep breaths and experience breathing impairments while sleeping.

2. Heart

Most scoliosis cases have little to no effect on the heart. Still, severe cases of scoliosis can have a restrictive impact on the heart. In the same way that your lungs need room to inflate with oxygen, your heart needs room to expand and pump blood.

When scoliosis contorts the rib cage, it can restrict the heart’s room to function correctly. In most cases where scoliosis affects the heart, it causes it to work harder than usual to produce a heartbeat, often resulting in mitral valve prolapse.

Your mitral valve is one of the four heart valves that keep blood flowing in the right direction. With mitral valve prolapse, this heart valve doesn’t close entirely and allows blood to leak backward within the valve. As a result, the heart may receive diminished blood flow and experience murmurs.

In the most severe scoliosis cases where the rib cage disrupts heart function, heart failure may occur. Severe scoliosis cases may also cause pulmonary hypertension. Thus, surgery is often needed to avoid the life-threatening complications of heart failure.

3. Brain

Scoliosis is associated with the decreased flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) — the fluid that coats the brain and spinal cord — to and from the brain. The abnormal curvature of the spine can disrupt the proper flow of CSF, which can worsen scoliosis. CSF provides protection and nourishment for the brain and removes waste. Low CSF flow can cause several neurological deficits, of which headaches are the most common.

4. Muscles

Scoliosis is correlated with muscle imbalances. Muscle imbalances in the back are considered both a potential cause of scoliosis and an effect of it. That is, scoliosis may occur due to a muscle imbalance and can exacerbate an existing muscle imbalance in the back due to the abnormal curvature of the spine.

With scoliosis, the muscles that the spine curves toward are overused, while those on the other side are underused. In this way, the muscles on one side of your spine will be stronger than those on the other if you have scoliosis. This muscle imbalance also worsens scoliosis, as the stronger side will support the spine more than the weaker side.

5. Digestive System

Scoliosis affects the digestive system just as it impairs heart and lung function — it removes space from organs that aid the digestive process. These organs include your esophagus, stomach and small intestine. Abnormal curvature of the spine can compress and constrict the esophagus, stomach and small intestine by shortening the torso. Research also shows that patients with scoliosis often experience gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

6. Reproductive System

If you’re pregnant, scoliosis can affect the position of your baby inside the uterus. Since scoliosis compresses the organs inside your torso by shortening the distance of your spine, it can impact how the baby is positioned. The more severe the scoliosis is, the more likely the baby will be malpositioned, which can cause stalls during labor.

Studies have made other interesting discoveries about scoliosis and the reproductive system. For example, scoliosis is linked with lower progesterone levels. Progesterone is a female sex hormone intricately involved with the reproductive cycle. One study shows that patients with scoliosis are more likely to experience dysmenorrhea, which is the experience of abnormally painful menstruation cycles.

7. Nervous System

Your central nervous system is comprised of your brain and spinal cord. In the same way that your skull protects your brain, your spinal column protects your spinal cord. Your spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that send messages from your brain to your body and vice versa.

If your skull is misaligned, it’ll cause problems with brain function. Likewise, a misaligned — or abnormally curved — spinal column disrupts spinal cord function. Thus, since scoliosis affects the skeletal system, it also affects the nervous system.

8. Mental Health

Scoliosis may also negatively impact your mental health. Whether you’re dealing with pain or a visible spinal deformity, scoliosis may cause mental health issues such as:

  • Negative body image
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Self-criticism
  • Low self-esteem
  • Personality disorders

If you’re experiencing mental health concerns with scoliosis, know you’re not alone and that help is available for both scoliosis and mental health concerns.

When to See a Doctor

If you think you or your child has scoliosis, see a spine doctor for an examination. A spine doctor can assess symptoms, provide testing, an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. Some symptoms of scoliosis include:

  • Visible abnormality in spinal curvature
  • Leaning to one side
  • Uneven shoulders or hips — one hip or shoulder sticks out
  • Ribs sticking out on one side when leaning forward
  • Back pain, which is more common in adults than in children

Visit New York Spine Institute If You’re Concerned About Scoliosis

The scoliosis team at New York Spine Institute consists of board-certified neurosurgeons and orthopedic spine specialists who have an expert understanding of scoliosis treatment. If you’re concerned about scoliosis, schedule an appointment with one of our spine specialists today!