Should we go for the straight back goal?

Paola has scoliosis: her back is twisted on itself. Therefore, she has been given a brace to wear — a nice plastic “jacket” that she is actually going to have to wear for some years to come. But why? Well, to straighten her back, of course!

This, of course, is a logical train of thought, but unfortunately logic and medicine don’t always go hand in hand.

A similar logical train of thought leads many people to think that surgery can eliminate the problem of scoliosis, but the reality is that surgery simply fixes a section of the spine with screws and bolts, blocking the curve in order to stop it from worsening. And even in those instances when the surgeon manages to almost straighten the patient’s back, we have to ask ourselves whether a surgically treated scoliotic spine can ever possibly be the same as before.

The answer is that, obviously, it can’t – the fixation devices (screws and bolts) used to arrest the progression of the curve are constraints that will prevent single segments of the spine from moving.

In reality, many, if not all, treatments used in medicine don’t solve, erase or even fix the problem they are addressing. Therapy gives us the instruments we need to manage, as well as possible, our condition and all the problems it brings.

Take diabetes, for example. You have diabetes? No problem, just take a drug before each meal: it will control your blood sugar level. What it won’t do, however, is get rid of your diabetes.

The same goes for scoliosis. Scoliosis can’t be erased; it can’t be eliminated. If you have it, the first thing you have to do is accept that you have a totally manageable health problem.
Then you simply have to roll up your sleeves and get on with the business of taming it. Try thinking of it like a wild horse, but one that we can certainly tame and keep under control. Just don’t expect to be able to transform it into a fluffy little pet — it will always retain some of its wild spirit!

Receiving a diagnosis is always a difficult moment: it doesn’t matter what disease you are being told you have. Therefore, accepting the presence of  imperfection is hard, both for patients and for their parents.

Sometimes it seems easier to pretend that the problem is not there, and with scoliosis it is certainly easy to do this: first of all, being “behind us”, it is harder to see. Also, at the outset it is not particularly noticeable, or may even be almost invisible, externally. Unfortunately, however, scoliosis, is sneaky and very insidious, and sooner or later it forces us to face reality. That’s when we find ourselves, once again, weighing up the treatment options. There will always be more than one treatment option, but as time goes by the possible outcomes change, and therefore so, too, do the objectives of the treatment!

The ultimate objective in scoliosis treatment is to ensure that the patient has a healthy and functional back by the time they have finished growing, and that does not mean a straight back. A healthy back is one capable of withstanding the stresses and strains of daily life for the 70 or so years that we can, on average, expect to live once we have finished growing. It is also a back that will do its job without giving us pain, and without developing a major worsening of the curves.

Science has taught us that this objective is realistic, providing the curves are still under 30°-35° at the end of growth, which is hardly straight!

In pursuit of this ultimate objective, strongly supported by the SOSORT guidelines, medical prescriptions can differ between patients, even ones whose situation is apparently similar.

In some families, there will be more than one sibling affected by scoliosis, and even though these youngsters have the same disorder, its morphology may well vary. For example, one might have a dorsal curve and another a lumbar one. Similarly, the severity of the curves can differ: you might find one girl who can be treated with exercises alone, while her older sister has to wear a brace full time.

In these situations, misunderstandings can often arise! Let me give you an example.

Laura has scoliosis, an approximately 30° curve that was discovered when she was 14 years old. After examining her, the physician prescribed a rigid brace, to be worn 23 hours out of 24. By the end of the treatment her curves had improved considerably, her trunk was perfectly modelled and symmetrical, and her scoliotic curve had decreased to under 20°!

Laura has a sister, four years younger. From the time of Laura’s first examination, the physician caring for her began monitoring her sister, too. When she was 11 years old, the younger sister began treatment involving exercises alone. By the time she finished growing, however, her curve measured between 25 and 30 degrees!

At the end of the treatment, the mother was disappointed and worried about the younger daughter’s outcome. The family, at a considerable personal sacrifice, had done everything according to the physicians’ instructions, for years bringing both daughters along for examinations and exercise sessions, only to end up with one daughter with worse curves than her sister.

In these situations, comparisons are inevitably made and the straight back misunderstanding arises! Nowadays braces aren’t as alarming as they once were and patients might well be tempted to think, why not wear one anyway, if it means I will end up with a nice straight back?

Because the fact is that a person whose back is straight by the end of growth will enjoy the same level of function and the same quality of life as someone whose back is slightly curved (under 30º). That’s why, as patients start out on their long and tiring therapeutic journey, we urge them to remember the motto: “let’s function and not straighten up!”

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