Adult scoliosis can be defined as a spinal coronal plane deformity of greater than 10° that presents in a skeletally mature individual. A number of studies have reported the prevalence of adult scoliosis to be between 2% and 32%, possibly even higher.


Adult curves are typically pre-existing idiopathic scoliosis with secondary degenerative changes or de novo degenerative scoliosis, but can be iatrogenic, post-traumatic, congenital, post-paralytic, or secondary to infectious or neoplastic deformity. Although the etiology of scoliotic deformity remain incompletely understood, in adult degenerative scoliosis a coronal curvature, sagittal curvature, or combination of these deformities originates from a asymmetrical degeneration of lumbar inter-vertebral discs or facet joint degeneration and osteoporosis. These lead to loss of load support, changes in the local architecture, and increasing deformity. Unlike pre-existing adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, which may progress at 0.5° to 1° per year, the degenerative nature of the curvature may cause rapid progression (1° to 6° per year).

Clinical Presentation

Unlike adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, where pain is uncommon as a presenting complaint, patients with degenerative deformity frequently present with mechanical low back pain, radicular pain, neurogenic claudication, or truncal imbalance. Typical radiographic features include lumbar rotatory subluxation, asymmetrical disc tilt, and advanced disc degeneration. The saggital balance should be carefully analysed on lateral radiographs.


Most patients with degenerative scoliosis do not require surgical treatment and are managed conservatively based on the presenting symptoms, such as analgesics for back pain and epidurals for neurogenic claudication. Bracing may sometimes help the symptoms, but it has no effect on curve progression.

Lumbar and lumbosacral adult scoliosis are the most common curve locations that require surgical intervention. A posterior approach with single or multilevel posterior lumbar interbody fusion (PLIF) or transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion (TLIF) is typically utilized. It is recommended to perform a PLIF/TLIF at the L4-5 and L5-S1 levels to improve the saggital alignment and to augment the fusion potential. Restoration of saggital balance has been reported to be the primary parameter associated with outcome.

When deciding on the last instrumented cephalad level, a general rule is to cross the thoracolumbar junction transitional zone to reduce adjacent segment stresses and prevent junctional kyphosis from occurring above.

Traditional Indications for Surgical Management

  • Intractable axial or neurogenic pain.
  • Prevention of curve progression; thoracic curves greater than 50° to 60°, lumbar greater than 40°, or short and sharp curves.
  • Stabilisation of rapidly progressing curves.
  • Symptomatic coronal or saggital imbalance with decompensation requiring re-alignment and stabilization

Surgical Controversies

Deciding the caudal level of the fusion: To fuse or not to fuse to the sacrum?

The advantages of stopping a long fusion at L5 are well recognized and include:

  • Retention of lumbosacral motion
  • Decreased operating time
  • Lower pseudarthrosis rate
  • Decreased rate of re-operation
  • Decreased stresses at the SI joints

To stop at L5 requires a normal, well-hydrated L5-S1 disc, with good lumbar lordosis. The concern about stopping at L5 is that the L5-S1 disc may ultimately degenerate and can lead to a positive saggital shift (junctional kyphosis).

Indications for fusing to the sacrum include:

  • “Advanced” degeneration of the L5-S1 disc
  • Spinal stenosis at L5-S1
  • Spondylolisthesis at L5-S1
  • Oblique take-off of the L5-S1 segment greater than ten degrees
  • Laminectomy at L5-S1
Limited and focused versus extensive surgery

Limited surgical intervention does not aim to address the deformity, but rather specific symptom-producing pathology, such as isolated foraminal stenosis with resulting radiculopathy. This may be indicated under the following circumstances:

  • Deformity is stable and does not require stabilization
  • Primary symptom(s) is/are not due to deformity itself
  • Pathology can be addressed surgically without destabilising the curve

There are two main categories for such surgery:

  • Limited decompression without fusion.
  • Decompression with short fusion


Medical complications are a major concern in adult spinal deformity surgery, with the incidence ranging from 40% to 86%.

Local complications include:

  • Infection
  • Pseudarthrosis/failure of instrumentation
  • Neurological
  • Adjacent level degeneration/instability

Common medical complications include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Atelectasis
  • Ileus
  • Delirium
  • Cerebrovascular incidents

With thoracic and thoracolumbar curves, the use of spinal cord monitoring has made spinal surgery much safer.


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  5. Glassman S.D., Bridwell K.H., Dimar J.R., et al. The impact of positive saggital balance in adult spinal deformity. Spine 2005;30:2024-49

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  9. Baron, E.M, Albert, T.J. Medical complications of surgical treatment of adult spinal deformity and how to avoid them. Spine Vol. 31, Number 19, Suppl, ppS106-S118, 2006

Reprinted with permission from the Summer 2009 issue of COA Bulletin