Can Scoliosis Surgery Kill You?

Written and reviewed for scientific and factual accuracy by Dr. Jelcick, PhD and Dr. Janzen, DC

Two common questions frequently arise when someone first learns about scoliosis and the available treatment options: Can scoliosis kill you; and can scoliosis surgery kill you? While scoliosis itself cannot kill you by itself (some types of scoliosis also have additional health issues), scoliosis surgery can have significant risks including infection and death.

Can Scoliosis Kill You?

As we mentioned briefly above, scoliosis alone cannot kill you. While you may have seen historical photos of extremely severe cases, it is typically rare for scoliosis to severely affect normal body function (ie. breathing due to compromise of the function of the lungs) to the point where the patient dies. Scientific studies on the “natural history” of scoliosis (the normal progression of the disease if left untreated) suggest that curves greater than 100 degrees may potentially contribute to death; but typically only compromise respiratory function (ie. shortness of breath). That being said however, scoliosis can occur in conjunction with other health issues (ie. Marfan’s syndrome) which have their own complicating health issues.

What about scoliosis surgery? Can it be fatal?

Death is possible from scoliosis surgery, however, the exact rate of death from scoliosis surgery is unknown due to a lack of universal mandatory reporting and differences in determining when to attribute a death to a surgery. A systematic literature review by Weiss and Goodall in 2008 found that death rates varied based upon the type of scoliosis, co-morbidity, and patient age. Neuromuscular scoliosis cases have a death rate of 6.5%, adult scoliosis cases have a death rate of 2.5%, and Idiopathic Scoliosis (AIS) cases reported a death rate of .03% 1.

The Scoliosis Research Society (SRS), consisting largely of surgeons who treat scoliosis, requires all members to participate in formal reporting of scoliosis complications, including the rate of death. SRS members may opt out of this mandatory reporting for a fine of only $200. Scoliosis surgery mortality rates from the 2016 SRS Morbidity and Mortality report 2 vary from those reported by Weiss and Goodall, but both reports find the highest rate of death among neuromuscular scoliosis surgery.

Table of scoliosis surgery deaths

Can Scoliosis Kill You: Detailed Breakdowns From the 2016 SRS Mortality Report:

There's a .06% death rate of idiopathic scoliosis surgery in children under 10

Average Death Rate for Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis (AIS) Surgery in Children Under 10 years Old: 0.06%

.02% death rate of idiopathic scoliosis surgery in children aged 10-18

Average Death Rate for Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis (AIS) Surgery in Children 10 to 18 years Old: 0.02%

.13% death rate of idiopathic scoliosis surgery in adults

Average Death Rate for Idiopathic Scoliosis Surgery in Adults: 0.13%

.26% death rate for neuromuscular scoliosis surgery

Average Death Rate for NeuroMuscular Scoliosis Surgery: 0.26%

.13% death rate of congenital scoliosis surgery

Average Death Rate for Congenital Scoliosis Surgery: 0.13%

.23% death rate of other scoliosis surgery

Average Death Rate for Other Scoliosis Surgery: 0.23%

References

  1. Weiss H-R, Goodall D. Rate of complications in scoliosis surgery – a systematic review of the Pub Med literature. Scoliosis 2008;3:9.
  2. Burton DC, Carlson BB, Place HM, et al. Results of the Scoliosis Research Society Morbidity and Mortality Database 2009-2012, A Report From the Morbidity and Mortality Committee. Spine Deform 2016;4:338–43.