Scoliosis Overview

Scoliosis is the abnormal curvature or twisting of the spine. It can be caused by a decrease in bone density in the spine – which calcium and vitamin D consumption can aid with – but it is often difficult to identify a cause. Treatment can involve a back brace or, in more severe cases, surgery to correct the curvature of the spine.

What are the signs and symptoms of scoliosis?

Scoliosis starts most often between the ages of 10 and 15 and mild scoliosis may not even require treatment. 

Scoliosis from birth as a result of a spine malformation in the womb is known as congenital scoliosis.

The condition developing as a result of wear and tear and ageing is called degenerative scoliosis.

Symptoms include:

  • A visibly curved spine
  • Leaning to one side
  • Uneven shoulders, hips or ribs
  • Poorly fitting clothes
  • Back pain, particularly in adults with the condition

How is scoliosis diagnosed and treated?

Someone who suspects they may have scoliosis should go to their GP for an X-ray. A brace or cast may be worn on the back if a child has not yet stopped growing.

Corrective surgery can be carried out in adults, or children once they have stopped growing, which straightens the spine.

The mental, as well as physical health of someone with scoliosis, will benefit from physical activity, including staying in work, which can help the person manage their scoliosis through distraction and generally remaining happier. People with scoliosis may be particularly susceptible to poor mental health as their spinal curvature is often noticeable and can make the person self-conscious.

Scoliosis is typically not that painful, but adults, in particular, may require painkillers if the condition is causing them pain.

There are a few ways to determine whether an employee has scoliosis, or to confirm scoliosis which requires reasonable adjustments:

An employee may not disclose their scoliosis upfront, but if they do, questions regarding the nature of an employee’s scoliosis and what extra support they may need can be broached sensitively. For example:

  • Have they required adjustments in the past? For example, avoiding certain types of manual tasks which might be made difficult by their torso imbalances, or avoiding sitting at a desk for too long, which could cause stiffness.
  • Encouraging the employee to express their strengths and interests and which tasks they might enjoy doing is a positive way of adapting to their needs and empowering them, benefiting their mental health.
  • Even if the employee does not wish to disclose their scoliosis, an employer can focus on making reasonable adjustments, rather than seeking to determine the precise disability their employee has.

What reasonable adjustments are possible with scoliosis?

Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with scoliosis if they know, are aware of, or could ‘reasonably be expected to know’ that the employee has scoliosis. Most employees will tell their employer what reasonable adjustments they need. They often involve simple changes in the way an employer might usually do things.

If the employee does not disclose a health issue or disability which may affect their performance upfront, an employer should broach the subject sensitively if they suspect that there may be a disability behind the employee’s reduced performance. Reasonable adjustments can then be made in accordance with the employee’s needs, including, in the case of scoliosis:

  • Flexible working hours to accommodate medical appointments and periods of increased absence or decreased productivity, including following surgery for which the employee will need to have taken leave.
  • Additional breaks if the person’s pain medication causes their concentration to lapse or makes them drowsy shortly following taking it.
  • Help with travel to and from work such as the provision of mobility aids, etc.
  • Adjustments to duties depending on the severity of their symptoms, which may be variable and improve or deteriorate from one week to the next. This may also be dependent on when they take their medication if they are required to operate machinery, for example.
  • Raising awareness so that colleagues understand the employee’s scoliosis and can help ensure the employee feels comfortable at work, for example, when taking additional breaks.
  • Ergonomic equipment to reduce pressure on the back while sitting at a desk.

Scoliosis Signposting

Scoliosis Association UK – organisation providing support, advice and information for people with scoliosis, and raising awareness of the condition among the general public and healthcare professionals. The charity focuses on tackling pain and poor body image in people with the condition, specifically (020 8964 1166).

Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance – an umbrella organisation uniting patient and professional groups to provide the best care for people with existing conditions, as well as to raise awareness about the conditions (including scoliosis) in the general public (0203 856 1978).

MSK Knowledge Hub – a partnership between the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance and NHS England to bring information to people about MSK conditions, including scoliosis. It is a database of searchable articles to inform the support of people with MSK conditions, as well as the people themselves.

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