By the time Susan Whitehouse was diagnosed with scoliosis at 16, she had reached her full height and wasn’t eligible for bracing. Her scoliosis wasn’t severe enough to warrant surgery, but the curve in her spine was pronounced enough to trigger sciatica (pain that radiates from the lower back through the hips and down the legs), especially while sitting and twisting her torso in a chair as she treated dental patients.
“By the time I reached my late 30s, it was pretty awful,” says Whitehouse, now 52 and a mother of two in Clarksburg. “When I stopped running and practicing dentistry, I stopped getting sciatica. Now, I don’t have any other symptoms related to scoliosis.”
But the results of postural corrections largely depend on how long the person has had scoliosis, how active he or she is, and how pronounced the curve is, Raybuck says. Despite the best noninvasive measures, surgery sometimes is required in both kids and adults.
The good news is that less invasive surgical techniques have been developed to treat many patients with spinal stenosis and scoliosis. Khanna recently operated on a man in his mid-60s who had degenerative lumbar scoliosis. In the past, his condition would have required a six-to-eight-hour surgery involving an incision from the middle of his back to his pelvis.
“Given the patient’s obesity and age, we did not want to perform a conventional open surgery because of the magnitude of the surgery and the associated elevated risk of complications,” Khanna says. Instead, he performed a newer, minimally invasive surgery called XLIF (extreme lateral interbody fusion), which allowed him to access the front of the spine from a smaller incision on the side of the abdomen, realign the spine and relieve the pressure on the nerves.
“His recovery was excellent. He was in the hospital just two days, and his back and leg pain improved markedly,” Khanna says.
In a recent review of medical studies on the subject, researchers from Spain found that XLIF can correct some spinal curves by up to 75 percent.
With kids under age 10, surgeons can place special rods in the spine that will straighten out the curve and lengthen over time to accommodate the growing spine. “Previously we fused the curved spine in place [meaning two or more vertebrae were joined], which would affect a child’s ultimate height,” Levin says.
In teens who are close to full height, surgeons now use imaging to guide them in placing screws to straighten the spine.
After her surgery in January, Tori grew nearly 2 inches, overtaking her mother in height by summer.
“Now, all the curves in her spine are where they’re supposed to be,” Kathleen McPherson says. “She’s pain-free, and she looks regal because she’s got beautiful posture. She looks like she floats through the room.”
What’s more, the teasing and bullying are history. A recent study in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics found that teens who had surgery to correct scoliosis experienced a significant improvement in their self-image and mental health. Tori, now a sophomore at Quince Orchard High School, certainly did.
“After the surgery, I felt so much better,” Tori says, “and people thought the changes in my body were amazing. I felt happier, and I became more confident when I talked to people.”
It’s true, her mother says. “She never used to smile. Now she does all the time.”