is scoliosis hereditary Posted in: Understanding Scoliosis

If you’ve been diagnosed with scoliosis, it’s not uncommon for you to be asked if you have other family members who also have it. You might assume that, since scoliosis runs in families, it’s passed down through genes. But is scoliosis hereditary? If you’re a parent, you should know that the genetic factors involved in scoliosis aren’t set in stone. There’s no hard and fast rule about family members passing it on, and researchers continue to dive into DNA to get more and better answers. 

In this post, we touch on the science of epigenetics, which examines how signals from our environment can actually influence our genes, turning them “on” or “off” through a process called methylation. By influencing your environment, you can influence your genetic risk — for heart disease, cancer and even scoliosis!

Let’s start by reviewing some commonly-held assumptions about what makes a disease “hereditary.”

What is a Hereditary Disease?

The term “hereditary” in genetics refers to a disease that is directly passed down by one parent (or both) to their offspring through genetic inheritance. Usually we hear about it in regards to diseases that can be passed down by inheriting a single defective gene, like cystic fibrosis. Defects in a single gene (also known as Mendelian disorders) are actually quite rare, accounting for only a small percentage of all known diseases.

Most diseases have genetic associations and predispositions, but they are not truly genetic in the sense that they are caused by defective genes which are passed down from parents to children. In the case of conditions like cancer and heart disease, changing one’s diet and lifestyle can actually influence the genetic risk of someone developing that condition. Your susceptibility to various diseases is not written in stone at birth!

So is scoliosis hereditary? With scoliosis, there’s no clear evidence that parents can pass it onto their children. Unlike true hereditary diseases, there can be a wide variation in the types and severity of scoliosis that develop from generation to generation — if it even develops at all! You might be surprised to learn that scoliosis can develop in one identical twin and not the other.

If scoliosis isn’t hereditary, what is it?

We find it more appropriate and helpful to call it “familial,” meaning that there’s a family connection but that it might not be entirely related to your genetic makeup. If you think about it, there are a lot of things that families share other than genes, including things like where they live, lifestyle and even posture. It makes sense that there’s a connection among family members that’s both environmental and genetic.

Scientists have also come to the same conclusion as they look for the root causes of scoliosis. Some people might have a genetic predisposition to develop scoliosis, but you can’t tell if someone has (or will develop) just by looking at their genes. There’s more to it.

Genetic Factors

These days, it’s common to assume that a disease must be related to genetics when the cause is unknown. And because 80% of scoliosis cases have unknown causes (called idiopathic scoliosis), many people assume that there must be a genetic defect at play. Some studies point to genes related to nerve fiber elasticity, bone density, tissue structure and joint hypermobility as being involved in the development of scoliosis.

However, no one has been able to find a single gene responsible for scoliosis. In turn, genetic research has evolved to look at the interaction of multiple genes as well as the science of epigenetics. The expression of our genes can actually change throughout our lives as certain genes are activated or turned off, and epigenetics studies the role of our environment in this process.

Environmental Factors

When we talk about the environmental factors involved in scoliosis, it boils down to three main categories:

  • Physical, like how the body adapts to maintain its function rather than form, which is why avoiding spinal injuries is important,
  • Emotional, such as intense stress that can cause you to tense up and use muscles asymmetrically, pulling things out of alignment; and
  • Chemical, including your diet, nutrition and vitamin intake as well as chlorine and heavy metals like mercury, which have a negative effect on your ligaments, making them looser and unstable.

If scoliosis is ⅓ genetic and ⅔ environmental, as current thinking suggests, then someone with a genetic predisposition and a lifestyle with these sorts of environmental conditions could be at high risk. Luckily, environmental factors are also more in your control. Someone born with very flexible ligaments could perform specific stabilizing exercises, actively avoid exposure to chlorine, and consume foods high in vitamin C and manganese (and other nutrients which promote healthy ligaments) to help reduce their chance of developing scoliosis.

Treating the Unknown

A linear, simplistic approach doesn’t work well when it comes to understanding scoliosis. There’s not one pain or symptom that can be fixed with a predetermined treatment that leads to a predictable result. And when you factor in all of the possible combinations of genetic and environmental influences involved in idiopathic scoliosis, it’s no wonder that standard treatments like bracing and surgery are so focused upon simply holding the spine in place.

With so many different potential reasons for why the spine develops scoliosis, determining the exact reasons why scoliosis developed in a specific individual is extremely difficult. But without understanding and addressing those reasons, the factors that caused the spine to bend in the first place will continue to act against the forced correction.

The CLEAR chiropractic approach to scoliosis means that a doctor is looking at more of the root causes of your pain and limited mobility as well as other symptoms like balance issues. There could be many individual factors to address, from asymmetry in the hips to spinal cord tension. By conducting a detailed exam of each person to see what’s at play, patients end up with a highly customizable treatment plan that balances working with the body and the mind.

For Parents

While we know that parents in this situation often feel powerless, we hope you remember that it’s not your fault. Parents do not “give” scoliosis to their kids, and many of the same genetic factors that predispose someone to develop scoliosis also give them a competitive edge when it comes to sports that emphasize flexibility.

For families where scoliosis is found across generations, parents have the advantage of knowing about the possibility that a child might be at risk. Awareness means that they will be prepared to do early screenings between the ages of 6-10, which can lead to earlier and more effective intervention.

Lastly, it’s important to understand scoliosis as an adaptation rather than a disease. When you start to understand why the body develops the scoliosis in order to adapt and function, then you can truly start to unravel the mysteries behind its potential causes.

There’s still a lot to learn about inheritance and the lifestyle and environmental factors that lead to scoliosis. And although there aren’t one-size-fits-all treatment options available as research continues, we’ve found that scoliosis patients benefit from a chiropractic approach like CLEAR treatment that is as individual as their case.

Are multiple members of your family affected by scoliosis? Do you have additional questions about the genetic and environmental factors involved in scoliosis? Let’s talk in the comments.

13 comments on “Is Scoliosis Hereditary?”

  1. 1
    Elibank Jackson Davis on May 20, 2017

    It was just found out that my daughter of 10years has scoliosis and it’s already at 29degrees and she is 5.2 tall,what are her chances of correction and how long would it take. Thanks

    1. 2
      Dr. Josh Woggon on May 24, 2017

      When scoliosis develops in a child of 10 years of age or less, it’s considered juvenile scoliosis. These cases have a potential of being much more severe, and need to be taken very seriously. Some research suggests that in the absence of any treatment, half of all curves over 20 degrees in someone 10 years of age or less will progress to the point of requiring surgery. It’s important that you consult with a scoliosis specialist right away so they can perform a thorough, in-person evaluation to determine what your daughter’s risk of progression may be, and how long it would take to reduce & stabilize the curve. Most cases of scoliosis need the most aggressive treatment during periods of rapid growth, which in females is generally around 11.7 years of age. Once growth has slowed, treatment can be reduced somewhat, but ideally should not be discontinued until the spine is completely done growing.

    2. 3
      Tess on June 14, 2017

      It may correct be a brace. She would need to go to a spine doctor and find out what he feels is best most likely since she’s still really young she’d get a brace. And for how long it would take that all really depends if the brace helps and the curve doesn’t progress she shouldn’t have to have surgery.

  2. 4
    Paulette Brown on September 30, 2017

    I was diagnosed with scoliosis about 12 yrs ago, I am 64 yrs old & it has gotten really bad. I also have bulging disc & spurs, they did surgery in 2009 to get a spur out & clean between the bulging disc. This did nothing to relieve my pain. I get 3 injections in my spine every 6 months, they use to help, lately, not so much. I’ve got metal in my left ankle & leg due to breaking them, the ankle had to have part of the metal removed due to my skin would not heal over it, I need the metal at my left knee removed that they placed there to stableize the rod for the left femer because it causes awful pain. They want to do surgery on my back & put rods, bolts, & screws in it, but the way my body reacts to metal, I’m not to sure about doing it. Any other suggestions?

    1. 5
      Dr. Josh Woggon on October 1, 2017

      CLEAR provides a non-surgical alternative. Our doctors are trained in new & innovative techniques that may help where others have failed. Contact us at (866) 520-4270 or via e-mail (care@clear-institute.org), or visit https://www.clear-institute.org/find-a-doctor/ to find a list of CLEAR doctors around the world.

  3. 6
    Dawn Valentine on November 4, 2017

    What does fibrosis mean ,my son died of cf in 2011 . i now have sardicosis of the lungs . Is their a connection

    1. 7
      Dr. Josh Woggon on November 4, 2017

      Fibrosis means “scar tissue.” Pulmonary fibrosis, for example, means scar tissue in the lungs, which can be caused by numerous different diseases.
      Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder involving the gene that controls mucus production. With sarcoidosis, there’s no one single gene that’s malfunctioning; while certain genes may raise or lower your susceptibility, there’s not one gene that’s specifically defective, like there is with fibrosis. While the exact cause(s) of sarcoidosis are unknown, most researchers believe it is an auto-immune disorder, where the body begins responding inappropriately to an environmental trigger (similar to allergies), causing inflammation that doesn’t go away with time like it should, but rather starts forming nodules in various organs.
      For more detailed and comprehensive information about cystic fibrosis, check out the following links: http://www.cff.org, https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/cystic-fibrosis#, and https://medlineplus.gov/cysticfibrosis.html
      For more information about sarcoidosis, I would recommend the following resources: http://www.stopsarcoidosis.org, https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sarc, and https://www.webmd.com/lung/arthritis-sarcoidosis#1
      My condolences on the loss of your son. I wish you all the best in your struggle against sarcoidosis. While the cure for sarcoidosis – like the cause – is unknown, there are some people who found specific scientific chiropractic adjustments, dietary modification (such as raw food diets, gluten-free diets, plant-based diets, and anti-oxidants/anti-inflammatory diets, such as the Aden Protocol), and certain vitamins & supplements (vitamin D, curcumin, quercetin, and serrapeptase) to be helpful in alleviating or reducing their symptoms. Please consult with a chiropractor or medical doctor to determine if any of these methods might be worth trying for you!

  4. 8
    Miss Precious on November 11, 2017

    What are the possibilities of a mother who has scoliosis and a normal father(without scoliosis) to have children with scoliosis?

    1. 9
      Dr. Josh Woggon on November 12, 2017

      This is an excellent question! I’m very glad you asked.
      You probably remember learning about the Punnett square when you’re first introduced to the concepts of classical genetic inheritance. The Punnett square works well for things like eye color, that involve a single gene, which is influenced by either dominant or recessive genes from each parent. Unfortunately, scoliosis (like many complex conditions) does not follow these straightforward patterns of Mendelian genetics.
      While some genes have been associated with scoliosis, this does not mean that having (or not having) that particular genetic variant guarantees you will (or will not) develop scoliosis. The best that scientists can tell, scoliosis is influenced by both genetics and the environment – and, the influence of the environment is roughly twice as powerful.
      Genes that influence the laxity of the ligaments and the development of the spinal column can increase or decrease your risk of developing scoliosis, but even someone with all of the genetic risk factors for scoliosis might not develop it, if the environmental factors are not present.
      What are these environmental factors? Scientists really aren’t sure, but they could be things like chemical exposure (swimming in heated indoor swimming pools at a young age has been linked to scoliosis, as was a specific food additive in Jamaica back in the 1980’s), sensorimotor integration (the communication between the brain and the body), and proprioceptive & vestibular function (the body’s sense of position & balance).
      Having a family member (and especially a mother) with scoliosis does mean that you are more likely to develop scoliosis, but that’s because family members tend to share the same genes, and also the same environments. However, many children are born to mothers with scoliosis, and never develop the condition. The best answer I can give you is, if you know you have a family member with scoliosis, be sure to have your spine checked regularly by a chiropractor or scoliosis specialist, especially around the ages of 9-11 for girls, and 11-13 for boys. If signs of scoliosis appear, have an x-ray taken immediately, and if scoliosis is present, don’t delay treatment until the curve is more severe, but rather get started immediately with a proactive program of scoliosis-specific exercises such as CLEAR, SEAS, Schroth, or similar. This could mean the difference between a few weeks of treatment and some daily exercises, or several years of uncomfortable and awkward brace wear!

  5. 10
    Tiffaney on April 27, 2018

    I’ve had a bad back since I was in high school. I’m 38 now. I injured my back in Feb 2017 and being I know my back, knew something wasn’t right so I went to a Chiropractor. Found out I have scoliosis among other things wrong with my back. My mother who also has had back problem since her early 30’s and multiple things going on as well (we basically have same stuff different areas) went to my Chiropractor and found she has Scoliosis as well – It’s not a major curve, but it’s there. My spine it’s different as it curves in, instead of out as it should which isn’t helping my back issue any. My daughter at 16 is now complaining about her back hurting a lot. I sort of started at her age and now I’m forced retirement. Is it possible to assume she’s following our same path and she has the start of our genetic issue?

    1. 11
      Dr. Josh Woggon on April 27, 2018

      It would definitely be worth the time to have your daughter evaluated, and maybe have an x-ray taken, to know for sure if scoliosis is present or not. While the most recent research suggests that scoliosis is, at most, one-third genetic and two-thirds environmental, it is true that scoliosis runs in families. Anyone who has a family member with scoliosis should be evaluated for signs of scoliosis themselves.
      Many CLEAR doctors will offer free scoliosis screenings – contact a CLEAR doctor for more information, or visit our page on screening for scoliosis.

  6. 12
    katie on September 20, 2018

    I have scoliosis, and appear to be the only in my family from both sides one as told, is that common, or like is it possible to be the only one with scoliosis?

    1. 13
      CLEAR on September 21, 2018

      Thank you for your question. That is common. The current theory is that there is a genetic predisposition to scoliosis that, when placed in the right environment, it causes it to come out. That means that it’s in the genetics, but doesn’t necessarily affect everyone in the family. It is possible that if you had 5 kids of your own, 1 might have it, all might have it, or none. It could also be your grandkids that get it. Unfortunately, scoliosis is still a misunderstood condition that needs a lot of research to find out what and why.

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