How is scoliosis diagnosed?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Scoliosis is typically first diagnosed through a physical exam. The doctor will ask the child to bend over into a position that makes a spinal curve more visible. X-rays will confirm the diagnosis and show the curve of the spine more definitively. Other tests may be required if the curve is thought to be caused by another medical condition. Children with scoliosis may need to be monitored closely by their doctor to make sure that the curve does not get worse with time.

Dr. Luke Macyszyn, MD

The best test to diagnose scoliosis is an x-ray. Doctors order x-rays of the front and side of the spine to determine if a child does indeed have scoliosis. X-rays are not necessary for everyone and they are not used as a routine screening test due to the radiation exposure. But, when there is a high likelihood or a very high suspicion of scoliosis, this is the best test to determine if a child indeed has scoliosis and to determine the curve parameters.

Children are frequently screened at their school with a forward bending test. During this test, they bend forward and the nurse examines their spine. Unfortunately, this test is not very sensitive or even specific for diagnosing scoliosis. Scoliosis is not a common disorder and hence there are frequent false positives (false alarms) from these tests.

Scoliosis is initially diagnosed by a screening exam.  Some areas have school nurses screen for scoliosis during specified times of early adolescence.  Every child should have an annual checkup and part of that exam should include screening for scoliosis.  This is easily done by having the patient bend 90 degrees at the waist, keeping the back straight. The spine is then easily visible.  If scoliosis is present there will either be an obvious curve in the spine or one side of the back at the shoulder blade level will be higher than the other. The actual degree of scoliosis can be confirmed by Xray.  

Scoliosis appears in the middle to younger high school aged child as they go through their rapid growth spurt.  This can develop rapidly and can be missed if not checked annually.  Once an adolescent has stopped growing, scoliosis cannot be treated by simple medical intervention.  If caught early, however, bracing can be started to prevent further curvature from developing.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.