Scoliosis (Adult)

Scoliosis (Adult)
When viewed from front or back, a healthy spine is completely straight (left); in a patient with scoliosis (right), the spine can be seen to curve laterally.

Scoliosis is a condition in which the spine curves laterally. A healthy adult spine viewed from the back appears straight. A spine with scoliosis, however, shows an abnormal sideways curve that most commonly develops in the thoracic (mid-back) region. Adult scoliosis is often a result of worn-out joints and spinal discs.  It is often associated with an abnormal posture in the front-back plane known as kyphosis. (See Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis for information about scoliosis in young patients.)

The sideways spinal curve of adult scoliosis can lead to an uneven distribution of weight that can cause pain and neurological problems including weakness. Adult scoliosis is not just disfiguring but can be disabling as well, as any spinal deformity that causes an individual’s body to compensate in unnatural ways can lead to pain and discomfort.

What Causes Scoliosis?

Some cases of scoliosis are idiopathic, meaning it’s not known what causes them, but sometimes the causes can be congenital, neuromuscular, or associated with known syndromes (such as neurofibromatosis).

  • Adult idiopathic scoliosis (idiopathic means the cause is unknown) is the condition in which an individual has had scoliosis since childhood. A person may have scoliosis in adolescence but never had it treated, or had a mild condition that was treated but got worse with aging.
  • De novo scoliosis describes adult scoliosis in people (usually older than 40) who have no history of scoliosis as adolescents but then develop a curve from changes in the spinal column linked to osteoporosis, degenerative disc disease, compression fractures, and spinal stenosis. As a disc degenerates, it loses height. Pressure on the spine and gravity cause it to curve, and the deformity increases as more discs become affected. Compressed nerves can lead to numbness, sciatica, low-back pain, stiffness, fatigue, and other symptoms.
  • Scoliosis may develop as a complication following other surgeries. Post-surgical complications/iatrogenic scoliosis (iatrogenic means as a result of medical intervention) — such as when spinal fusion or a laminectomy does not heal properly — often requires a second, revision surgery.
  • Traumatic accidents and certain infections and cancers can lead to damage to the nerves, muscles, and spine, which can develop into adult scoliosis.
Pat Cusick had mild scoliosis for many years, but it never bothered her. The Staten Island woman had an active life, even taking a retirement job as a school nurse after a long career in nursing, which included teaching in an associate degree-...
I started my journey as the Global Neurosurgery Fellow in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the summer of 2023. I had just finished a complex spine fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis, where the amount of technology available to perform spine...

Our Care Team

  • Professor of Neurological Surgery, Spinal Surgery
  • Co-Director, Spinal Deformity and Scoliosis Program
  • Director, Spinal Trauma/Adult and Pediatric Spinal Surgery
Phone: 212-746-2260
  • Assistant Professor, Neurosurgery 
Phone: (888) 922-2257
  • Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery
Phone: 866-426-7787 (Manhattan) / 646-967-2020 (Brooklyn)
  • Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery
Phone: 646-962-3388
  • Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery, Spine Surgery
Phone: 718-670-1837 (Queens) / 888-922-2257 (Manhattan)
  • Chief of Neurological Surgery, NewYork-Presbyterian Queens
  • Professor of Clinical Neurological Surgery
  • Co-director, Weill Cornell Medicine CSF Leak Program
Phone: (718) 670-1837
  • Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery
Phone: (718) 670-1837
  • Associate Professor of Neurological Surgery, Spine Surgery
Phone: 718-780-3070

Reviewed by: Kai-Ming Fu, MD, PhD
Last reviewed/last updated: August 2021
Illustration by Thom Graves, CMI

Weill Cornell Medicine Neurological Surgery 525 East 68 Street, Box 99 New York, NY 10065 Phone: 866-426-7787