Why the shape of your spine matters
From the front or back, a normal spine seems simple: a straight, vertical line. But from the side, it's a series of undulating curves. These gentle bends make your life easier — and make life easier on your body.
Your spine allows your body to do things that it couldn't do, or couldn't do as well, without the proper curves. For instance, without the inward curve of your low back, you'd have a difficult time standing upright.
The shape of the spine is a distinguishing feature of humans, says Christopher DeWald, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Rush University Medical Center. Most animals have a C-shaped spine that curves them into the horizontal position, but the S-shape of the human spine balances the body upright in a vertical position.
The curves of your spine also protect it from the effects of gravity. "Every time you walk, run or jump, forces from hitting the ground go up into your body,” says Sheila Dugan, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Rush. "Your spinal curves act like a bicycle's shock absorber, diffusing some of that force, so there's less trauma to your joints and discs.”
When curves go awry
Unfortunately, the spine doesn't always curve as it should. Such is the case with scoliosis, a condition in which the spine develops a side-to-side S- or C-shaped curve.
People with scoliosis may look like they are leaning to one side. Their head may not be centered over the body, and their shoulders and hips may be uneven.
An especially large scoliosis curve creates an imbalance that DeWald, a scoliosis expert, describes as a tower of blocks. "If you stack the blocks up and offset them a little, they won't fall over,” he says. "But if you offset them too much, gravity takes effect.”
The further the spine gets out of side-to-side alignment, the greater the pull of gravity on the discs. The greater the pull on the discs, the faster they degenerate, which — in a vicious cycle — continues to make the curve worse.
What can be done?
Scoliosis treatment is often determined based on the degree of the curve and a person's skeletal maturity — whether or not he or she is still growing. The goal is typically to stop the curve from progressing or to correct it. Sometimes progression can be controlled with a brace, which puts pressure at the apex of the curve and opposing pressure above and below it. For a person who has stopped growing or has a severe curve, however, surgery may be recommended to reposition the spine.
Fortunately, the nationally recognized experts at Rush can handle even the most complex scoliosis cases. In fact, they have been treating the condition in people of all ages for more than 35 years and are currently pioneering minimally invasive scoliosis surgery techniques. Rush is also one of the nation's referral centers for adults with scoliosis.
"You take someone who has a significant curve and you straighten it out, and patients can see it, family members can see it, X-rays show it — it's dramatic,” DeWald says. "These treatments can be life-changing.”
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