Was An English King Unjustly Maligned For Curvature Of The Spine?

Scoliosis may be as old as England’s King Richard III, but medical treatments have come a long way since the 15th century.

At Summit Orthopedics, we constantly monitor medical research to offer you the most advanced and carefully tested treatments available. Today’s advances may seem to come slowly, but the pages of history provide a striking measure of medical progress. When the bones of King Richard III were unearthed in central England, they told a moving story about how far the treatment of scoliosis has come.

Shakespearean verse painted England’s 15th-century king Richard III as a lurching “hunchbacked toad” with a deformed shoulder. His historical detractors played up his physical faults as reflections of a villainous nature, and implicated him in the murder of his two young nephews.

When the king’s grave was discovered a few years ago, researchers had the opportunity to compare history to scientific reality. Scientists reconstructed his spine and found that though Richard III did indeed have an advanced case of scoliosis, his actual appearance was far less frightening than historical accounts would lead one to believe. The king’s head and neck were straight, but his right shoulder was higher than his left, and his torso was short compared to his limbs.

The scoliosis that affected King Richard remains fairly common today. About one in 40 children have some form of scoliosis, which causes a sideways curvature of the spine. We still don’t fully understand what causes scoliosis—though hereditary factors are suspected—however treatment options for this disease have come a long way since the 15th century.

Most cases of scoliosis are mild. Signs and symptoms of the disease typically appear in children just before puberty, and may include an uneven waist or shoulders, one shoulder blade that is more prominent than the other, or one hip higher than the other. Mild curves may not cause pain, but the disease must be monitored because the curve sometimes gets worse over time and can cause complications like back pain, noticeable changes in appearance, or lung and heart damage.

At Summit, our spine specialists do an evaluation to determine the severity of the disease, and then tailor a treatment plan to the patient’s needs. Our physical therapists work with some patients; physical therapy can’t stop scoliosis, but it can help patients to look straighter and improve breathing difficulties. More severe cases may be treated with a brace to prevent further progression of the curve, or corrected through spinal fusion surgery.

It is too late for medicine to silence Richard III’s detractors, but with today’s treatment options, it’s possible that his scoliosis would not have advanced, and his posture may have been straighter. Would this have caused Shakespeare to cast him in a kinder light? Your guess is as good as ours.

 

 

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