Can scoliosis or 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.

Can scoliosis surgery 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.

Scoliosis Surgery Category SRS Death Rate 2009-2012 Death Rate Per Weiss, Goodall
Idiopathic Scoliosis Surgery in Children Under 10 Years Old 0.06%
Idiopathic Scoliosis Surgery in Children 10 to 18 years Old 0.02% 0.03%
Idiopathic Scoliosis Surgery in Adults 0.13% 2.50%
Congenital Scoliosis Surgery 0.13%
Neuro-muscular Scoliosis Surgery 0.26% 6.50%
Other Scoliosis Surgeries 0.23%

Scoliosis Surgery Death rates: Detailed Breakdowns From the 2016 SRS Mortality Report

Chart showing death rate for idiopathic scoliosis surgery for children under 10 years old

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

Chart showing death rate for idiopathic scoliosis surgery for children 10-18 years old

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

Chart showing death rate for idiopathic scoliosis surgery for adults

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

Chart showing death rate for neuro-muscular scoliosis surgery

Average Death Rate for NeuroMuscular Scoliosis Surgery: 0.26%

Chart showing death rate for congenital scoliosis surgery

Average Death Rate for Congenital Scoliosis Surgery: 0.13%

Chart showing death rate for other types of 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.

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Table of scoliosis surgery deaths

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<div style="clear: both;"><a href="https://scoliosiscarecenters.com/can-scoliosis-surgery-kill-you"><img src="https://scoliosiscarecenters.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Scoliosis-surgery-death-rate-table.png" alt="Scoliosis Surgery Death Rates" /></a><br /><br /><a href="https://scoliosiscarecenters.com/can-scoliosis-surgery-kill-you">Can scoliosis surgery kill you?</a> (Graphic) created by <a href="https://scoliosiscarecenters.com/">Scoliosis Care Centers</a> <em>Data obtained from Weiss, Goodall, Rate of complications in scoliosis surgery, Scoliosis 2008;3:9.  Burton, 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.</em></div>
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