New technique helps patients with debilitating scoliosis

December 27, 2011 7:32:37 PM PST
A new procedure is changing the lives of young patients who suffer from a debilitating deformity.

Ballet had been a passion for Sara Grimes until her instructor noticed something that threatened not only her ability to dance, but her quality of life as well.

"She was always telling me to stand up straight, and she noticed that I was hunched over a little bit and she asked me if I had scoliosis," recalled Grimes.

Scoliosis is a deformity of the spine that can leave even younger patients with a hunching of the back. Walnut Creek surgeon Dr. Robert Rovner says that in addition to bending the spine, the disease also twists it.

"So when the patient bends, one side is higher than the other, so the ribs get thrown up because the spine is rotated," said Rovner. "So if you think of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, that's what created that hunchback."

To straighten Grimes' back, Rovner turned to a technique he's helped pioneer that involves placing rods and screws in a new way.

"Traditionally, you'd put in a left hand rod, then bring spine to the rod to get the correction, then bring in a second for strength," said Rovner. "But because the first rod is already in place, the seconds rod doesn't add anything to the correction."

He says with the new system, the hardware on both sides of the spine is interconnected. During a mutli-phased operation, the surgeon straightens the spine in sections, anchoring the hardware temporarily to the operating table.

"Ehen it's perfect as we can get it, we put in both rods and tighten is down," said Rovner. "So in effect, we're correcting the spine by using both sides of the spine, both sides of the instrumentation."

Vertebrae are then fused together to keep the correction solid. In Grimes' case, surgeons were able to successfully correct both the bending and the twisting in her spine. She's hoping to regain the mobility to do the things she loves.

"Yeah, I'd love to dance again," she said. "That'd be my idea of a full recovery, I guess. I'd love to be able to just get back on the dance floor and perform again."

Although the procedure involves modified hardware, it's treated as a standard scoliosis surgery for insurance purposes and there's typically no additional cost.

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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