You'd think back pain would be the most obvious sign of scoliosis, but there are plenty more subtle, seemingly unrelated symptoms to watch out for, too. Most of them don't seem like a big deal, on paper. But since a curvature of your spine can impact the rest of your health by throwing your whole body out of alignment, experts say paying attention these potential signs is important.
"Scoliosis is ... a term used to describe a spinal deformity, which presents as a sideways curve in the spine," Neel Anand, MD, professor of orthopaedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center, tells Bustle. "A [typical] spine is perfectly vertical, as if a line was drawn with a ruler on a piece of paper. But when scoliosis occurs, the spine can curve both ways, creating an S shape."
Some people with scoliosis have a mild case, and thus don't notice a curve, or any resulting symptoms. But if your curve is more severe, it can lead to pain, discomfort, walking issues, and even breathing issues. If you notice any of the subtle symptoms below, talk with your doctor. They will do an X-ray to determine if you do, in fact, have scoliosis, and prescribe some helpful treatment options from there.
1One Of Your Shoulders Is Higher Than The Other
An easy way to spot scoliosis is by simply looking in the mirror, standing up straight, and checking to see if one of your shoulders appears to be higher than the other. "The appearance of uneven shoulders is a common symptom of ... scoliosis sufferers," says Anand. It often begins in childhood during a growth spurt, where the curvature of the spine shifts the natural alignment of the shoulders. "As a result, one shoulder blade appears more prominent than the other," he says. Or, one shoulder may be higher.
2Your Rib Cage Pops Out More On One Side
Along with uneven shoulders, you might notice that your rib cage pops out more on one side, causing an "uneven" look to your body. "This is due to the abnormal curve of the spine," Dr. Scott Rosner, a Chiropractor at Wholebody Solutions, tells Bustle. "When a scoliosis is present, the spinal curve shifts laterally, or to the side. This creates a change in the associated structures, such as the pelvis and the ribcage, giving the uneven appearance."
3One Of Your Legs Seems Shorter Than The Other
If your spine is curved, it may "cinch" up one side of your body, causing one leg to appear shorter than the other. As Rosner says, you might notice that your pant legs always seem to be uneven, or that one hem trails on the floor, while the other doesn't. This is, again, may be due to the shift in your spine, and the resulting unevenness in your body.
4Your Shirts Are Always Wrinkly On One Side
Of course, clothing wrinkles don't automatically mean scoliosis, but if you catch yourself constantly smoothing the back of your shirts, it could be a very subtle sign of scoliosis. "For example, you'll see a lot of wrinkles ... on the low back on the right side, then some bunching up higher up on the back on the left side," Timur Crone, a bodyworker and running coach, tells Bustle. (Here's an image of what that might look like.)
This could be due, in part, to the fact scoliosis may cause a "hump" in your back, where one side sticks out further than the other. If that hump is causing your shirt to rub on on your chair all day, but only on one side, you'll likely notice more wrinkles in that area.
5One Sleeve Is Always Longer Than The Other
If you haven't noticed much of a difference in your pant legs, you might notice that one shirt sleeve is always longer than the other, regardless of the size you buy.
"This could be due to a number or reasons," Rosner says. "First off, depending on the location of the curve, [your] shoulders may be uneven with one being higher or lower than the other. The location of the curve may also cause winging of the scapula or shoulder blade. Winging occurs when the scapula does not lay flat along the rib cage and sticks out slightly. These postural changes may cause the appearance that one sleeve is shorter than the other, or in the case of winging that the shirt appears tighter one one side compared to the other."
If you feel like you're constantly tugging on one sleeve, a trip to the doctor (and an X-ray) can help you figure out if it's all due to scoliosis, which then can be treated right away.
6Your Shoes Wear More On One Side Than The Other
Since a curved spine shifts your pelvis, it can throw your whole gait out of alignment, causing you to walk unevenly. "This change in the hips can ... effect the wear on a patient's shoes," says Rosner. "Because of the change in length of the leg, the stride associated with their gait may either lengthen or shorten, causing increased wear and tear on the shoe itself. Look for scuffs on the toes or excessive wearing at the back of the heel. "
7It Feels Awkward To Carry A Purse Or Backpack
If your back is curved, and one side of your body is lower than the other, it can cause subtle changes in how your clothes hang, as well as how you carry a purse or backpack. "For instance, instead of noting that one shoulder is higher than the other ... it may be noted that a purse or backpack strap continually slides off one shoulder and not off the other due to a shoulder imbalance," chiropractor Ryan J. Engstrom, DC, tells Bustle.
So take note if you have a preference for holding a bag on one side and not the other, or are constantly readjusting your bag as you walk. And if you think scoliosis is to blame, speak with your doctor to find out more.
8Sometimes You Feel "Off" When You Walk
Again, due to the gait issues associated with scoliosis, you might notice that you feel "off" while walking or running. Or, you (or a friend, or a doctor) might also notice that you don't swing your arms in a common way.
"When walking, [a period with scoliosis will] not swing their arms equally," Kelsey Baas, PT, DPT, owner and physical therapist at Compleo Physical Therapy & Wellness, tells Bustle. "Often in scoliosis because of both the rotation and the decreased arm-to-waist space on the convex side [or the side that curves outward], it can affect arm swing with gait and running tasks."
If anything of this rings true, be sure to speak with a doctor, who can better confirm your suspicions and give you a diagnosis.
9You Have Chronic Muscle Pain
If your body is even slightly out of alignment, it can lead to some unpleasant aches and pains — and possibly ones that have yet to be treatable.
"Over time, scoliosis can cause muscular imbalances around the spine that can create chronically tight or weak muscles," Dr. Dan Kirk, Chiropractic Physician and Certified Chiropractor Sports Physician at Lateral Fitness, tells Bustle. "Oftentimes, these muscles are not as responsive to treatment." So if you've tried everything to feel better, and can't quite get to the bottom of things, have your doctor check for scoliosis. It may be why you've been feelin' so bad.
10You Always Lean To One Side While You Stand
While it's comfortable to bend your knee and lean a bit while you stand, take note if you're constantly putting more weight on one leg than the other. "Scoliosis creates pelvic imbalances which often facilitate asymmetrical standing with more weight on one foot, or always standing with one foot behind the other," says Baas. 'To be consistent with scoliosis, it must always be the same leg that you have increased weight bearing through."
11It's Been Slightly Difficult For You To Breathe
If you feel a little bit uncomfortable when you take a deep breath, or sometimes feel a bit "smothered," it could be due to an uneven spine. "You might struggle to take a deep breath as the scoliosis might limit your rib cage expansion," Lyndsay Hirst, a Chartered Physiotherpist, tells Bustle. If that's the case for you, reach out to a doctor.
There are plenty of ways to manage scoliosis, and plenty of ways to feel better. "Most mild scoliotic curves can be conservatively managed with chiropractic care, physical therapy, or postural braces, or a combination of all of the above," Rosner says. "Manual chiropractic adjustments, stretches, and strengthening exercises in conjunction with a supportive brace can help to reduce the effects of the curvature in adults and can help minimize the advance of the curve in adolescents."
And the earlier you can catch these signs, and begin treatment, the better. "Since the skeletal system stops growing between 25 to 30 years of age, it is important to prescribe exercises that can help reduce pressure on the muscles and bones associated with the spinal column." Speak with your doctor if you are experiencing any of these signs consistently, and they will help you manage your symptoms.