June is National Scoliosis Awareness Month. At TPOC, we are acutely aware of how scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine, affects young people—including female athletes. We want to assure parents and pediatric athletes that a scoliosis diagnosis does not mean the end of youngsters’ athletic careers. In fact, most athletes with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (no known underlying condition or cause) return to preoperative levels of athletic activity after surgery, although they may play fewer hours per week.
The formation of scoliosis is fueled by bone/body growth. Therefore, at The Pediatric Orthopedic Center, we recommend screening at the pediatrician’s office during your child’s annual well visit,
starting in middle school, when female athletes’ bodies are changing and growing rapidly. This is also a time when kids may be setting new goals in their sports, putting additional stress on their bodies. Screenings can stop when children are fully grown (at about age 14 for girls and 16 for boys).
Signs of Scoliosis
Your child may come to you or a coach complaining of constant back or other localized pain, pain that progressively worsens, pain at night, feeling clumsy or weak, abnormality in gait (“walking funny”), or unexplained incontinence. These symptoms require screening by their pediatrician. You can read more about scoliosis, its diagnosis, and treatment in general in this prior post.
Scoliosis and Female Athletes
Girls’ participation in high school sports has grown from less than 300,000 in the early 1970s to almost 3.5 million during the 2018-19 school year. In fact, female adolescents represent almost 43% of high school athletes, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. However, as noted above, scoliosis doesn’t mean that girls have to stop playing their sport. In fact, being in good physical condition can help with recovery from scoliosis treatments or surgery and is a strong foundation for remaining active as an adult.
Treating Scoliosis in Young Female Athletes
Not all diagnoses are the same and there is a wide range of spinal curvature that informs treatment. Vitamin D in the early stages supports bone strength. If the curve becomes more pronounced, we recommend:
- Scoliosis exercises – Specialized Schroth exercises and physical therapy to strengthen the back and core; these are customized to improve muscular symmetry, spinal rotation, and posture awareness.
- Bracing – Custom braces are worn for curvature over 25 degrees. Daily brace wearing depends on the sport and range of activity, but all teens should wear the brace until they are fully grown.
- Brace wearing can be worked around athletic schedules and goals and teens may be able to wear the brace while they do their sports. Typical exceptions are activities requiring bending and flexing such as gymnastics, swimming, golf, and ballet.
- Because of its visibility, bracing can affect how girls view themselves as they grow. Parents should be prepared to provide emotional support if this comes up.
- Spinal fusion surgery – Rods are inserted and fused to the spine to correct curves over 40 degrees. The pediatric orthopedic surgeon will determine how many vertebrae must be fused to remediate the deformity. Surgery may also be indicated for teenage girls whose curvature is close to but does not exceed the 40-degree mark. Expect a hospital stay for two or three days and a return to school within a few weeks. No bracing is required.
Post-Treatment Sports Participation for Female Athletes
Each patient is unique so there’s no one answer about when a female athlete can resume playing their sport. Some athletes may not participate in sports immediately after a surgical procedure, but at TPOC, we can perform their surgery with their sports timeline in mind, such as performing the procedure during their off season. Some athletes may have to sit out a season after surgery, but the vast majority will be able to return to the field or the court after they’ve fully healed.
Female athletes who’ve had scoliosis surgery may return to their sport differently due to changes in the flexibility of their back, depending on the spinal fusion. Other patients may not perceive a difference since they lacked flexibility prior to treatment. These outcomes are patient-specific.
One research team found that 95% of patients returned to their sport after surgery for adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. The median time to return to training was three to six months after surgery. Most athletes returned to the same or higher level of activity, while some need to reduce the amount of time they play their sport following surgery.
Young female athletes with scoliosis should find comfort in knowing that there are high-profile
athletes who’ve returned to their sports after scoliosis treatment or surgery and have continued to compete and excel.
- Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin was diagnosed at age 30 with a 27-degree curve. She won six medals in six events at the Beijing Games.
- Eleven years after surgery to correct a 72-degree curve in her spine, Kyra Condie was one of the first U.S. Olympians to compete in sport climbing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
- Junior Olympian Juliette Clark was told she would never play water polo again after her scoliosis surgery for her severe curvature. A year later, she won a gold medal at the National Junior Olympics.
- Pro golfer Stacy Lewis was diagnosed with scoliosis at age 11. She wore a brace for seven years (18 hours a day), taking it off only to play golf. She then had corrective surgery to complete her straightening process. She went on to win the NCAA Division I individual championship title in college and was named the 2012 LPGA player of the year.
TPOC’s Center for Excellence for the Female Athlete
Caring for young athletes is a focus of our pediatric orthopedic practice, and with more female athletes competing –some, at very high levels — than ever before, we recently launched our Center of Excellence for the Female Athlete. This group of female practitioners specializes in meeting and treating the specialized needs and injuries of pediatric and adolescent female athletes, including those dealing with scoliosis and other spine deformities. We welcome parents to make an appointment with our Center of Excellence team to discuss options to keep your female athlete active.