The severity of scoliosis and need for treatment is usually determined by two factors:
Both are measured in degrees. These two factors are usually related. For example, a person with a spinal curve of 20 degrees will usually have a trunk rotation (ATR) of 5 degrees. These two measurements, in fact, used to be the cutoff for recommending treatment. However, the great majority of 20-degree curves do not get worse. Patients do not usually need medical attention until the curve reaches 30 degrees, and the ATR is 7 degrees.
Adam's Forward Bend Test. The screening test used most often in schools and in the offices of pediatricians and primary care doctors is called the Adam's forward bend test.
The child bends forward dangling the arms, with the feet together and knees straight. The curve of structural scoliosis is more apparent when bending over. In a child with scoliosis, the examiner may observe an imbalanced rib cage, with one side being higher than the other, or other deformities.
The forward bend test, however, is not sensitive to abnormalities in the lower back, a very common site for scoliosis. Because the test misses about 15% of scoliosis cases, many experts do not recommend it as the sole method for screening for scoliosis.
Other Physical Tests.
Proper diagnosis is important. A misjudgment can lead to unnecessary x-rays and stressful treatments in children not actually at risk for progression. Unfortunately, although measurements of curves and rotation are useful, no test exists yet to determine whether a curve will progress.
Inclinometer (Scoliometer). An inclinometer, also known as a scoliometer, measures distortions of the torso. The procedure is as follows:
Some experts believe the scoliometer would make a useful device for widespread screening. Scoliometers, however, indicate rib cage distortions in more than half of children who turn out to have very minor or no sideways curves. They are therefore not accurate enough to guide treatment.
Currently, x-rays are the most cost-effective method for diagnosing scoliosis. Experts hope that accurate, noninvasive diagnostic techniques will eventually be developed to replace some of the x-rays used to monitor the progression of scoliosis. To date, imaging techniques under investigation appear to be fairly accurate for detecting scoliosis in the upper back (the thoracic region), but not scoliosis in the lower back (the lumbar region).
X-Rays. If screening indicates scoliosis, the child may be sent to a specialist who takes an initial x-ray and monitors the child every few months using repeated x-rays. X-rays are essential for an accurate diagnosis of scoliosis:
Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is an advanced imaging procedure that does not use radiation, as x-rays do. It is expensive, however, and not generally used for an initial diagnosis. MRI can, nevertheless, identify spinal cord and brain stem abnormalities, which some studies indicate may be more prevalent than previously believed in children with idiopathic scoliosis. It also may be particularly useful before surgery for detecting defects that could lead to potential complications.
Because frequent x-rays may be required for young children with scoliosis, parents should be sure that x-ray technicians take all necessary protective measures. Experts are concerned about the long-term effects of radiation on sensitive young organs, particularly about a possible increase in the risk for cancer. Studies have reported an increased risk for cancer in women and men who, because of scoliosis, had been exposed to diagnostic x-rays in their childhood and adolescence.
X-ray techniques have become safer in recent years, and technicians can reduce the hazards with the following simple measures:
There are various methods for determining and classifying the extent of the curve.
Cobb Method. The technique known as the Cobb method nearly always calculates the degree of the curve.
The Cobb method is limited because it cannot fully determine the flexibility or the three-dimensional aspect of the spine. It is not as effective, then, in defining spinal rotation or kyphosis. It also tends to over-estimate the curve. Additional diagnostic tools are needed to make a more accurate diagnosis.
Classifying the Curve. Classification of the curve allows the doctor to identify patterns that can help determine treatments, particularly specific surgical techniques. The following are examples:
Three-Dimensional Modeling Techniques. Advanced computer modeling techniques are able to create three dimensional images using x-rays or other two-dimensional images. They allow doctors to observe the spinal distortions. Eventually, they could reduce the number of x-rays needed to monitor scoliosis and help surgeons determine the best surgical procedures.
Even if the curve is accurately calculated, it still remains difficult to predict whether the scoliosis will progress. In addition, computer models are being used to better predict risk. One approach requires measuring 21 radiographic and clinical indicators and entering them into a computer program. The technique takes less than 20 minutes per patient, and studies found it to be up to 80% accurate in determining progression of curvature.
One way of predicting whether or not the curvature will progress is knowing when the child will stop growing:
Knowing the child's age is, of course, the first step in estimating the end of growth. In addition, other methods can help predict the end of the growth stage. One method is called the Risser sign, which grades the amount of bone in the area at the top of the hipbone. A low grade indicates that the skeleton still has considerable growth; a high grade means that the child has nearly stopped growing and the curve is unlikely to progress much further. The Risser scale differs between genders, and, in boys, a high grade does not always signify the end of progression.
Screening programs for scoliosis, which began in the 1940s, are now mandatory in middle or high schools in many states, but there is considerable debate over whether screening should be routine.
Arguments Against Routine Screening. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force does not recommend routine screening to detect adolescent scoliosis for the following reasons:
Arguments for Routine Screening. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends that girls be screened twice, at ages 10 and 12, and that boys be screened once, at ages 13 or 14. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, however, scoliosis screening at ages 10, 12, 14, and 16 years. (In one study, over 40% of high school sophomores with newly diagnosed scoliosis had shown no signs of the disorder in earlier screening tests.) Other experts make the following arguments for universal screening:
Some experts argue that widespread screening would be cost effective if schools had reasonable guidelines for determining which children should see a doctor for further testing. The following are some suggested guidelines for determining the need for a doctor referral:
Such guidelines would detect about 95% of all genuinely serious cases while referring only 3% of all screened children for follow-up, thereby cutting costs without jeopardizing children.
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