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Information about surgery for scoliosis (Over 16 years of age)

Patient information A-Z

The information sheet has been prepared to help you understand as fully as possible about the operation for scoliosis. Please read this information carefully and if there are any further questions do not hesitate to ask.

Adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS) is by far the most common type of scoliosis, affecting children between the ages of 10 to 18; it is found in as many as 4 in 100 adolescents. In general, AIS curves progress during the rapid growth period of the patient. While most curves slow their progression significantly at the time of skeletal maturity, some, especially curves greater than 60 degrees, continue to progress during adulthood. Many theories exist with regard to the cause of AIS including hormonal imbalance, asymmetric growth and muscle imbalance. Although the cause of AIS remains elusive, we have methods of estimating the risk for curve progression of scoliosis and good methods of treatment.

Surgery is considered in cases where there is risk of the curve progressing or it has progressed beyond 40 degrees. Approximately 1 in 4 patients with scoliosis will require surgery. The aim of surgery is to correct and stabilise the spine to prevent further deterioration.

The surgery which is required to correct a deformity of the spine is major. It is important that you are aware of the risks involved and that although the end result should be an improved appearance, your spine will still be far from normal and there may be further problems in the future.

The operation involves positioning you to correct the curve. An incision is made down the middle of the back, screws are inserted on both sides of the spine and then two metal rods are inserted, which hold the correction in place. Bone graft is then added which causes the fusing (joining) of the vertebrae in that part of the spine so that they eventually join together. The operation itself normally takes four to five hours. You may however be in the operating theatre for the greater part of the day which includes the time it takes to set you up for surgery.

Risks of surgery and blood transfusion

Blood loss is normal during surgery and a proportion of patients may require a blood transfusion either during surgery or shortly afterwards.

The main risk is the possibility of damage to your spinal cord. If this happens it can result in paralysis of the legs and loss of control of the bowels and bladder. Fortunately this complication is rare. Worldwide it occurs in about 0.5 per cent of cases. Special precautions are taken to protect the spinal cord. In particular spinal cord monitoring is used so that if anything damages your spinal cord during the operation it can be detected immediately and hopefully the situation can be remedied.

The other risks are those which exist with any large operation. These include damage to the important blood vessels. Damage to one of the main blood vessels near the spine could result in life-threatening bleeding, although this is exceedingly rare.

Wound infections can occur and these sometimes do not become apparent until several months or even years later. If this occurs then it may be necessary to remove the metalwork from the spine.

Occasionally, the implants (screws and rods) can loosen or fail. You will have regular xrays after the operation to check the metalwork.

There will always be a large scar on your back, although it fades over the six months following surgery. Sometimes the skin around the scar can feel numb or tender.

Treatment after the operation

After the operation, you will be looked after on the Intensive Care Unit, High Dependency Unit or closely monitored on the ward. You will have a variety of wound drainage tubes and a tube, called a catheter, in your bladder.

It should be possible for you to get out of bed on day one and then gradually become more mobile on the ward. Patients are normally ready to leave hospital from four days after their surgery.

After discharge from hospital you should be able to gradually increase activity levels at home and should be able to return to college or work in four to six weeks. It takes several months for the bone fusion to happen and the spine has to be considered somewhat weaker than normal until it has fused.

It is most important that you fully understand the nature of the operation which you are about to have. If you have any further questions after reading this leaflet the team will be only too happy to discuss them with you.

Spinal deformity service team

  • Consultant Orthopaedic Spinal Surgeons: Mr J Crawford and Mr D Hay
  • Paediatrician
  • Consultant Anaesthetist
  • Specialist Physiotherapist
  • Specialist Nurse Practitioner
  • Scoliosis Coordinator – 01223 254694
  • Secretary to Mr Crawford – 01223 257299
  • Secretary to Mr Hay – 01223 274152

Decision making process

  • Counselling about scoliosis surgery
  • MRI
  • Lung function testing
  • Medical risk assessment

If the decision is made to proceed with surgery at this point, your case will be put forward for discussion at a multi-disciplinary meeting. If the team are agreed that no further investigations are necessary prior to surgery your name will be placed on the waiting list for surgery.

While on the waiting list – which can take several months – you will not be routinely reviewed in clinic.

If it has been over six months since the last x-ray or you are experiencing an increase or change in your symptoms then an appointment can be arranged with the Specialist Physiotherapist for review and an x-ray can be taken if appropriate.

Before the operation

When we have a potential date for your surgery you will be asked to attend the outpatient clinic for a few hours for a ‘pre-operative assessment’. During this visit the following tests are likely to be done to help plan the operation and make sure that you are fit for surgery:

X-rays of your spine to help plan the operation
ECG (electrocardiograph) to assess your heart
Blood tests also form part of the assessment of fitness for surgery. Blood will be cross matched in case you should need a blood transfusion during surgery
Spinal cord monitoring which will be used during surgery
Consent forms discuss and sign with consultant


You will be advised about the plans for your admission by letter. You will be admitted to a ward at Addenbrooke’s or to Nuffield Health, Cambridge Hospital. Unfortunately if there are unforeseen emergencies, there is a chance that your operation may be cancelled or postponed if no appropriate bed for your post-operative care is available.

Day of the operation

You will be in the operating theatre most of the day, and then transferred to the ward.

After the operation

  • Drips and drains - You will be attached to drips and drains including a catheter. These will gradually be removed as you recover.
  • Pain control - You will be attached to a special pain controlling system called PCAS (patient controlled analgesia system) which allows you to control the amount of pain-killer that you receive.
  • Physiotherapy circulation - Breathing exercises, foot and ankle exercises, static muscle exercises, leg and trunk control exercises

You will be assisted to roll in bed until you can turn yourself comfortably.
You will be helped out of bed to stand on day one.
You will be able to start sitting for short periods for functional activities such as toileting and eating.

The physiotherapist will assist and monitor you as you mobilise (walk) around the ward. You will then be able to walk regularly and gradually increase time sitting.

Once safety and comfort allow, you will be discharged home. This would be from day four onwards.

First six weeks:

  • Gradually increase the frequency and length of time spent sitting, standing and walking. Decrease the amount of time spent lying and resting.
  • You will probably benefit from lying down for a rest if your back becomes uncomfortable.

Four to six weeks:

  • Return to school, college or work part time, for example half days or every other day, gradually increase time and frequency of attendance as able.
  • Increase time and distance walking, increase pace as able.

Six weeks onwards:

  • Consultant review and x-ray in clinic.
  • Commence physiotherapy and hydrotherapy – the team will be in contact about these appointments and they will be take place over the next couple of months.

After three months:

  • Can go swimming and cycling and running.

Six months:

  • Review and x-ray in clinic.
  • Aim to increase fitness.
  • Acceleration/deceleration and turning.
  • No contact sport.

12 months:

  • Competitive contact sport.

Useful organisations

  • Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK) – leaflet from clinic 6 or their website
  • Scoliosis Research Society – visit their website and click on patient/public information

If you would like to be put in touch with a patient who has had scoliosis surgery, please contact the Scoliosis Coordinator (tel: 01223 254694

Privacy and dignity

Same sex bays and bathrooms are offered in all wards except critical care and theatre recovery areas where the use of high-tech equipment and/or specialist one to one care is required.

We are smoke-free

Smoking is not allowed anywhere on the hospital campus. For advice and support in quitting, contact your GP or the free NHS stop smoking helpline on 0800 169 0 169.

Other formats

Help accessing this information in other formats is available. To find out more about the services we provide, please visit our patient information help page (see link below) or telephone 01223 256998.

Contact us

Cambridge University Hospitals
NHS Foundation Trust
Hills Road, Cambridge

Telephone +44 (0)1223 245151