Scoliosis in Children with Cerebral Palsy

By John Lehman

Scoliosis is a spine disorder characterized by unusual changes in spine curvature. If the changes continue, the spine could become deformed, which could lead to severe health issues later in life.

Children with cerebral palsy are prone to developing scoliosis, as muscle weakness and balance issues are frequently associated with the disorder. Thankfully, scoliosis is very treatable if detected early on in the child’s development.

Characteristics of Scoliosis

Minor curves in the spine are commonplace and are usually not a cause for alarm. A curved spine is only diagnosed as scoliosis if the curve grows beyond 10 degrees. For children, scoliosis most often occurs between the ages of 10 and 18 years old, typically during a growth spurt. Roughly 20 percent of children who have cerebral palsy will develop scoliosis; the likelihood increases depending on how severe the cerebral palsy is. Girls are twice as likely as boys to develop scoliosis.

Children with cerebral palsy have a higher chance of continued changes in spine curvature and will likely start developing scoliosis earlier in life than children without CP. Children who have limited movement as a result of cerebral palsy also have an increased risk of developing scoliosis. It’s also important to note that scoliosis is hereditary, so a family history of scoliosis increases your child’s chance of developing it.

Detecting Scoliosis at an Early Age

Treatments for scoliosis are most effective when the condition is detected at an early age. For many children, the disorder will not cause much (if any) discomfort or pain in its early stages. Therefore, the best way to determine whether your child may have scoliosis is to look for visual clues, which can include:

  • Uneven shoulders
  • Prominent shoulder blade
  • Uneven waist
  • Elevated hips
  • Leaning to one side 

If you suspect your child may have scoliosis, set up an appointment with your child’s doctor as soon as possible. Doctors can diagnose scoliosis using a few simple physical tests. The most common physical test is the “forward-bending” test, where the doctor will ask the child to bend over and attempt to touch their toes. In this position, the doctor can look for curves or uneven ribs on your child’s body. Scoliosis can also be diagnosed through the use of x-rays.

Treatments for Scoliosis

When treating scoliosis, the goal is to prevent the spine from curving further out of shape. The type of treatment depends on the speed of the spine’s curvature and the degree of the curve. If the curve is less than 20 degrees, it is considered a mild case. Frequent checkups (quarterly or semi-annually) are typically all that is required in these situations. This ensures that the spine can be monitored for any changes as your child grows.

Moderate cases of scoliosis are marked by a fast progressing curve between 20 and 30 degrees. In these cases, your doctor may recommend the use of a brace. This is particularly true if your child is still at an age where their bones are growing. Although wearing a brace will not straighten your child’s spine, it should help keep the spine from getting worse as the bones strengthen.

If your child’s curve is progressing beyond 30 degrees, the case is considered severe and spinal fusion surgery or other forms of surgery may be necessary. Ideally, the surgery is performed once the child’s bones have stopped growing.  However, if the condition is rapidly deteriorating, your doctor may find that surgery is the best option. If the child’s bones are still developing and surgery is needed, metal rods can be installed in the spinal structure, which can be adjusted periodically as the child grows. 


Remember, cerebral palsy increases your child’s odds of developing scoliosis. It is important to check your child for signs of the disorder and to seek the opinion of a medical expert if you believe your child’s spine may be curving. The sooner a diagnosis is made, the sooner treatment can begin.

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Additional Resources:

Scoliosis Research Society

Scoliosis in Children with Cerebral Palsy
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