Maybe you’ve noticed your spine changing shape or shifting over the years. And maybe you’ve been telling yourself all kinds of myths to keep from dealing with it—especially if that could mean surgery. But now, the discomfort is becoming too much.
“Patients usually come to us when they can’t take the pain and discomfort anymore,” says Vincent Arlet, MD, Chief of Orthopaedic Spine Surgery and Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Penn Medicine.
There are several factors that can lead to a person’s spine looking stooped or hunched. People with scoliosis, for instance, develop a sideways curve of the spine. Osteoporosis—which leads to a loss of bone strength—can also cause the bones of the spine to collapse, because the bones are too fragile. This, too, can make the spine look curved.
Dr. Arlet clears up some of these common myths about having a curved spine and most importantly, what to do about it.
Myth #1: A curved spine is a normal part of aging, right?
The Truth: Kind of. “To some extent, you could say yes, the curved spine is a symptom of aging,” Dr. Arlet says. “If you look at patients who are 70 years old, 68% of those patients will have small scoliosis.”
As we age, the natural tendency is for the spine to become more round. That happens because the spine is made of a series of bones, or vertebrae, that are held together by discs, and aging causes the discs to lose their height.
“So, you have the disc space between the vertebrae narrowing, and it collapses,” Dr. Arlet explains. This eventually leads to a curved spine.
Most cases don’t require treatment. “You have lots of folks who have mild or severe deformity, but no pain,” he notes.
Yet, if you have pain or discomfort, then you should see a spine specialist to discuss treatment options.
Myth #2: Pain from a curved spine only affects the back
The Truth: “Pain can actually be anywhere, from the upper back, the low back, and sometimes even in the legs as you walk,” Dr. Arlet explains. “Some patients have compression of the nerves in the low back.”
They feel like they have a radiating pain down their legs, which can sometimes prevent them from walking.
Because the pain from a curved spine can come from different sources, Dr. Arlet says the first priority is determining where the pain you’re feeling comes from. “Then, we can address the problem and be able to give them good quality of life with a successful outcome.”
Myth #3: Surgery is the only treatment for a curved spine
The Truth:The good news is that surgery isn’t the only option if you have a painful curved spine.
Surgery is to correct the spine deformity and get the spine straight. Some people opt for that surgery for cosmetic reasons.
“But for pain, there are many other treatments, which should be tried first,” Dr. Arlet explains. “You can try over-the-counter pain medication, injections for pain, and physical therapy for pain management. All of these should be looked into and tried before we consider surgery.”
“It’s a good thing that patients wait to see surgeons, because obviously we shouldn’t jump to do surgery before we’ve tried everything,” he says.
That’s true, even if a patient wants to try surgery first.
“The surgery we’re doing is quite extensive,” he explains. “If you’re not suffering too much, there is no reason to go through extensive surgery.”