Starting to slouch It may be a sign your spine's crumbling
Ian Headrick is now three inches taller, having 'grown' from 5ft 8in to 5ft 11in
One of Ian Headrick’s most distinctive childhood memories is constantly being told by his parents not to slouch.
‘My dad had been in the Navy, so posture and sitting up straight at the table were very important in our house,’ says Ian, 54.
But no matter how much he tried to straighten up, Ian couldn’t quite manage it.
‘We all assumed I was just naturally round-shouldered.’
Little did the family realise that Ian was actually suffering from scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine to one side.
than 40 years later, he’s finally been treated for the condition — and,
as a result, he is now three inches taller, having ‘grown’ from 5ft 8in
to 5ft 11in.
a million Britons are known to suffer from scoliosis. The condition is
traditionally associated with children and teenagers, who are either
born with it or develop it early in childhood (Princess Eugenie had
surgery for the condition when she was 12).
estimated that one in 30 girls has very minor scoliosis, while one in
100 will need treatment with a brace or surgery. It is not known what
causes childhood scoliosis, or why girls are more prone.
However, experts now think there are many older people living with the condition without realising it. This may be because it was not picked up by doctors in childhood, as in Ian’s case.
But, more commonly, the over-50s develop scoliosis as a result of wear and tear on the spine’s discs.
As Ian Harding, a spinal surgeon at the Frenchay and Spire hospitals in Bristol, explains: ‘The discs and joints in the back wear out on one side more than the other, causing the spine to tilt and twist at its base, and a curve develops above it, which can cause severe back and leg pain.
‘The number of adults developing the condition later in life due to wear and tear is huge, yet they are not having their condition diagnosed.’
It's estimated that one in 30 girls has very minor scoliosis, while one in 100 will need treatment with a brace or surgery
Indeed, scoliosis is going to be an increasing problem in adults over 50 as we are all living longer, says Professor Hilali Noordeen, orthopaedic and spinal surgeon at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in London.
It’s estimated that 30 per cent of people over 70 develop a deformity in their spine. It may be a sideways bend, which is scoliosis, or a forward bend, known as kyphosis.
Another group that tends to suffer is women in their 30s and 40s who were not diagnosed as teenagers and who are now suffering from debilitating pain.
‘The problem for many adult sufferers is that when they are diagnosed they are told — often incorrectly — that their scoliosis won’t cause problems, or that no treatment is available,’ says Mr Harding.
‘In some patients this is simply not the case and everyone needs to see a spinal deformity expert to be assessed.’
Adult scoliosis should be treated, says Professor Noordeen, who is a member of the British Scoliosis Society.
‘For those who were affected from childhood who didn’t have treatment, there is a risk to their lung function over time,’ he says.
That’s because the organs in the chest become compressed.
He adds: ‘But those who have late-onset scoliosis, the problem tends to be debilitating back and nerve pain.’
The discomfort is caused partly by the wear and tear on the joints and discs as well as by slumping, which causes the ribs to dig into the pelvis, putting pressure on nerves in the spinal canal.
Ian was in the army and has run numerous marathons
Leg pain is also common, as the nerves are compressed by the spine collapsing or twisting.
Ian’s experience was typical of someone undiagnosed from childhood.
Unaware he was suffering from the condition, he went on to join the Army — where he spent all day trying to correct his posture and stand up straight.
He later discovered that doing this might actually have contributed to the problem by damaging his vertebrae.
‘I did suffer from backache, but I assumed it was due to the amount of exercise I was doing,’ says Ian, now a quality control manager living in Farnborough, Hampshire.
‘I never took any painkillers, as you don’t really do that in the military. I did notice my back was slightly curved, but I didn’t think anything of it.’
In fact, with a visible curve and back pain, Ian was showing the classic symptoms of the condition.
Other signs include your clothes not fitting properly (trousers or skirts may hang differently on one side of the body) and uneven shoulders.
It wasn’t until Ian was in his 30s that his condition was finally diagnosed — and only after a car accident in Germany meant he had to have X-rays on his back.
‘The diagnosis was a shock, but when I got home I was told there was nothing that could be done, except for very radical surgery,’ he recalls.
‘So I put it to the back of my mind and tried to get on with life.’
Then, last year his mother read an article in the Mail about surgical treatment for scoliosis using titanium rods to straighten the spine. She encouraged him to get a referral through his private health insurance.
For most adults with scoliosis, non-surgical options such as physiotherapy — to retrain the muscles to pull the spine into position — osteopathy, pain relief injections and corsets and braces are enough.
However, some patients, such as Ian, may need surgery.
‘In adults, sometimes smaller procedures can be done to treat the nerve or back pain using minimally invasive, keyhole techniques, but these can only be used in very selected cases,’ says Mr Harding.
‘Surgical techniques for scoliosis have advanced a great deal in recent years,’ says Professor Noordeen.
‘Even ten years ago, we had to send people away, as there was nothing we could do.
‘But now we have many more options — last week, I operated on a lady in her 70s.
'Like many patients I see, the pain had become so bad that she was willing to run the risk of major surgery, even at her age.’
He adds, however, that this should be avoided if possible. And it’s better to have surgery sooner rather than later if you do need it due to the risks involved, such as a blood clot afterwards, or before osteoporosis (fragile bones) develops.
For years, major realignment surgery involved using a Harrington Rod — a stainless steel surgical implant used to stretch the spine and correct the abnormal curvature.
The rod was attached to the spine with hooks inserted into the vertebra at the top and bottom of the curve. This forced the back straight.
‘Now we have state-of-the-art technology which can look at the spine in 3D while we perform a procedure called an osteotomy,’ says Mr Harding.
‘First, we make an incision in the back where the curve is, to access the bones of the spine and put some screws into it.
‘We then attach two titanium rods on to the screws; these will help straighten the spine and fix it into a better condition. They are very different from the Harrington Rod. That was basically just a beanpole to hold the spine up.’
When he was diagnosed 20 years ago, Ian quickly ruled out surgical treatment because he thought it too drastic.
But having read about newer treatments he went to see Mr Harding just over a year ago and had the surgery earlier this month.
‘It was a big operation, but I didn’t feel scared or worried,’ says Ian.
‘I was in a lot of pain when I woke up — I felt like I’d played six sets of tennis and had a dull pain in the bottom of my back — but there was plenty of pain relief available.’
After intensive daily physiotherapy he returned home six days later, able to climb the 30 stairs up to his flat. It will take him up to four months to recuperate.
‘It’s early days, but I am making good progress,’ says Ian.
‘I’m just so pleased that after all these years I’ve found a treatment.
‘Now I want other people with scoliosis to know there might be hope after all.’
For more information, visit The Scoliosis Association website at sauk.org.uk