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Am Fam Physician. 2001;64(1):32-34

See article on page 111.

School screening programs for scoliosis remain the subject of considerable controversy.17 A recent epidemiologic study7 reported that some children with scoliosis who were identified through screening received treatment but, because screenings have a low positive predictive value (0.05 percent), many children were referred who did not require treatment. In 1993, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force concluded that, “There is insufficient evidence for or against routine screening of asymptomatic adolescents for idiopathic scoliosis.”1 That conclusion was based, in part, on the lack of studies documenting improved outcomes from early identification and treatment of children with scoliosis. While subsequent reports810 have both supported and questioned the effectiveness of brace treatment for scoliosis, no randomized, prospective studies have clarified the efficacy of brace treatment. The benefits of scoliosis screening include increased public awareness of and knowledge about the epidemiology and natural history of scoliosis.

The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) and the Scoliosis Research Society (SRS) support school-based screening for scoliosis.11 A joint position statement on School Screening Programs for the Early Detection of Scoliosis by the AAOS and the SRS states that the optimal age for screening has not been established with certainty, but a reasonable approach is to screen girls twice, at about 10 and 12 years of age (grades five and seven), and boys once, at 13 or 14 years of age.11

The best means of assessing patients for scoliosis also has been debated. The most commonly performed test in school screening is the Adams forward-bending test, yet its effectiveness in school screening has been questioned.1214 In the Adams forward-bending test, the patient bends forward at the waist with knees straight and arms together and hanging toward the floor, and the back parallel to the floor. The examiner looks along the axis of the spine for rotatory asymmetry of the trunk. A difference of 8 mm in height between sides is considered abnormal.11

The degree of rotatory asymmetry in the Adams position relative to the horizontal position can be measured with a scoliometer. A measurement of 7 degrees is generally used as the cut-off point for referral for evaluation of scoliosis.11,15 A 7 degree measurement by scoliometer correlates with a Cobb angle of 20 degrees.15

Controversy notwithstanding, school screening for scoliosis is commonly performed, and physicians are likely to have patients who have been referred for evaluation for possible scoliosis. Therefore, some practical recommendations are warranted. I consider the Adams forward-bending test, as described earlier, to be quite useful on physical examination. With the patient standing before me, I can observe the unclothed back for asymmetry in the shoulders, waist and pelvis, as well as leg length and space between the arms and the body (I find the last factor easiest to appreciate).

As touched on by Reamy and Slakey in their review of scoliosis in this issue of American Family Physician,16 perhaps the most important aspect of a physician's evaluation of a patient referred because of a positive scoliosis screening result is to rule out any underlying pathology that might be causing scoliosis (see Table 1 in Reamy and Slakey's article).16 A history of unusual back pain, radiating limb pain, sensory or motor changes, and bowel and bladder problems should be obtained. A brief neurologic examination should consist of testing the patient's reflexes, asking the patient to jump up and down on each leg and walk on the heels, observation of the popliteal angle (to assess hamstring tightness), as well as tests of sensitivity of the lower extremities to light touch.

The AAOS and the SRS maintain that not all children who are referred because of a positive screening result require radiography. By design, school screening will refer some children who do not have scoliosis in an effort not to miss referring children with scoliosis.11 The question of when to obtain radiography cannot be answered on the basis of available scientific data. In my practice, I am likely to obtain radiography in children who have (1) a large, unambiguous curve on physical examination, (2) asymmetry on examination in skeletally immature children (the risk of curve progression is greatest during growth), (3) asymmetry on examination and a family history of scoliosis, and (4) asymmetry and neurologic signs or symptoms.

A patient with scoliosis and neurologic signs or symptoms warrants referral and, most likely, a magnetic resonance imaging study of the entire spine. The two most important predictors of curve progression are the size of the curve and the amount of growth remaining. Based on these risk factors, skeletally immature children with curves greater than 20 degrees Cobb angle or fully mature adolescents with curves greater than 40 degrees Cobb angle should be considered for referral to an orthopedic surgeon.

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