How often do you feel the need to crack your bones or stretch your back after a long day of sitting at your desk? Do you reach for that medicated plaster or muscle rub to treat the muscle pain but it does not seem to help alleviate the pain for long? It might not be as straightforward as muscle pain but a medical condition called scoliosis.
A survey conducted by the Back Society of Singapore claims that 1 out of 5 Singaporeans suffer from either back or neck pain, and 1 out of 10 Singaporeans experience pain at least once a month. As such, we asked Dr Benedict Peng, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon from Island Orthopaedic Consultants (a member of Healthway Medical Group) what this condition is about and how to prevent as well as treat it.
What is Scoliosis?
According to Dr Peng, scoliosis is a medical condition where the spine curves abnormally laterally, or to the side, creating a C or S shape. The overall prevalence rate of idiopathic scoliosis in Singapore’s school population is 0.93% in girls and 0.25% in boys. Girls are more prevalent to scoliosis than boys, though the reason remains unknown. In Singapore, 1.4 percent of girls aged 11 to 12, and 2.2 percent of girls aged 13 to 14 are diagnosed with scoliosis. A study, based in the US, found that girls who have more leptin hormones (hormone that alerts the brain when one is full) and Sympathetic Nervous System activity are more prone to the condition.
There is a common misconception that people with scoliosis cannot exercise or do sports. But, this is not true. In fact, it is uncommon for scoliosis to be considered a disability, and most people with scoliosis can still lead normal, active lives.
Symptoms of Scoliosis
The main symptom of scoliosis that differentiate it from just back pain is noticeable from an individual’s physical appearance, such as:
- Tilted or uneven hips, shoulders and waist
- One leg may appear shorter than the other
- Arms do not hang straight down next to the body
Other symptoms would also include pain in the back, or legs, or even numbness in the leg, if there is nerve compression in the spine.
There are varying degrees of severity when it comes to scoliosis. There are many patients who have scoliosis but are not affected by it, as the curvature of the spine is very mild. However, there are also severe cases, where the curved spine could cause the rib cage to press on other organs such as the heart or lungs, resulting in serious long-term damage.
In severe cases, where the curvature ranges from 40-50 degrees, surgery is recommended. However, such surgery would only be recommended if the curvature worsens despite having tried other methods of treatment and management of the condition.
Braces (non-surgical treatment) are prescribed for children with scoliosis, as their bones are still growing. They will need to wear the body brace daily for 1-2 years in order to stop the spine from curving. Depending on the severity of the curvature, they may have to wear the brace for 18-23 hours a day. Most patients with less than 25 degrees curvature do not require treatment but will need to be observed regularly every 4-6 months.
Though scoliosis cannot be prevented, one can slow down the impact of scoliosis by practising good spinal health. Exercising your core will help to strengthen abs and back muscles, and this will help to keep one’s spine strong as well. It is also important to practice good ergonomics while sitting, such as using a proper desk and chair at work to help support good posture, and limiting sitting time.
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