Scoliosis and posture: the two go hand in hand

Let us start with one thing we know for sure: idiopathic scoliosis is not a postural complaint, but rather a progressive spinal disorder that causes three-dimensional deformation of the vertebrae.

Although it is still not clear exactly why scoliosis occurs, its progression is known to be due, in part, to the force of gravity (i.e., the force of gravity does not cause the disorder, it simply helps it to progress).

Let us try to explain this in simple terms: our spine is like a tower of building bricks that serves to support us, and the bricks distribute evenly the weight it has to bear. If we have scoliosis, some of our bricks are not correctly shaped.
As a result, they are not properly aligned and our tower (spine) may have curve(s) in it. A spine with curve(s) is no longer able to distribute evenly the weight it has to bear; indeed, this presses down harder on the inside of the scoliotic curve, and less on its outside. 

If our spine is well supported, this effect can be lessened, because the support allows the blocks to realign, and this, in turn, reduces the extent of the curve(s). Conversely, without support, the bricks will slide even further to one side, increasing the angle of curvature and shortening the trunk even more.

What does all this mean? That our scoliotic curve will worsen more rapidly unless we continually correct it.

This is why the exercise-based treatment method used at Isico is based on the principle of SELF-CORRECTION: affected youngsters learn to intervene independently to control and align their spine as correctly as possible, thereby countering its tendency to collapse in the direction of the scoliotic curve.

Let us consider another aspect. On a spinal X-ray, we can measure the degrees of curvature present. The angle of curvature is actually the sum of two components: the deformity itself and the effect of postural sagging in the direction of the curve. The contribution of this second component is largely dependent on our capacity for “self-correction”.

How can we distinguish between these two components, i.e., actual bone deformity and postural sagging, so as to be able to intervene effectively on each of them? Again, on an X-ray, but in this case, it must be taken with the patient lying down, so that the degrees of curvature caused by postural sagging disappear, and all that can be seen, and measured, are those due to the deformity itself.

One study, now rather old but still valid, published in Spine in 1976 (Standing and supine Cobb measures in girls with idiopathic scoliosis, G Torell, A Nachemson, K Haderspeck-Grib, A Schultz), showed that postural sagging in scoliosis causes, on average, 9 degrees of curvature (ranging from 0 to a maximum of 20), and that the degrees attributable to postural failure are independent of the severity of the curve. Another interesting study published in Spine, in this case in 1993 (Diurnal variation of Cobb angle measurement in adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, M Beauchamp, H Labelle, G Grimard, C Stanciu, B Poitras, J Dansereau), shows that back “fatigue” can also affect the Cobb angle. In this study, youngsters with moderate to severe scoliosis (an average of 60 Cobb degrees) were X-rayed in the morning and then in the evening. The X-ray taken in the evening showed an average 5-degree increase in curve severity.

What should we do in treatment terms? Clearly, exercises alone cannot alter the actual bone deformity resulting from the scoliosis, which needs to be treated with a combination of exercises and brace wearing.
Nevertheless, specific exercises and self-correction can do a lot to address the problem of postural sagging. And if this “sagging” is responsible for an increased Cobb angle, we need to work hard at our exercises in order to “eat away” at (reduce) the part of the curve that is due to this component.

Merry Christmas and Happy New 2021

It is going to be a strange Christmas and New Year, different from any other. So, as we reach the end of 2020, we send you not only our sincerest greetings, but also a story of hope, trust and new life. Here Rossella, a former patient recalls the end of her treatment. 

You can never really forget something that was, in effect, a part of you for a very long time. Sometimes I feel like I have forgotten all about it, and yet it only takes a passing thought to take me back to four years ago. 

To say that I remember it with pleasure, that I miss it, and that with hindsight the whole thing was actually quite easy, would be both untruthful and hypocritical. It was difficult, painful and a real burden, and the reality of this is something I can only appreciate fully now that it is all behind me.  

There is nothing unusual about my experience, quite the opposite. Like countless other Isico patients, I was just a normal adolescent, albeit one who had to live her everyday life in a brace.

Every so often, I still find myself thinking back what life was like in a brace. 

When I curl up in bed, for example, I suddenly remember all those nights when I simply couldn’t do that, because in a brace you have to lie straight, and turning your head to one side on the pillow is literally the only movement that you do with ease. 

Now, if a pen falls off my desk when I’m working, I just bend down and pick it up, without having to think twice about it. But this sometimes makes remember how picking up a pen used to be quite a performance! Back then, I would have to get up from the chair, bend my knees to lower myself to the ground, and then reach out at full stretch, scrabbling for the pen, before then standing up again and returning to my chair. 

I also remember that when we went on our summer holidays, I would only go on the beach in the mornings, because in the afternoons I had to wear my brace, and it was so hot I would end up spending the whole time in my hotel room. 

Another thing, how could I possibly forget the way my entire day (going out with friends, going to school, doing sport and so on) had to be planned around when I was meant to be wearing my brace? I used to think of my brace-off time as my “hours of freedom”, because it was then that I was able to behave just like any other girl. 

As I say, it would be wrong to claim that brace wearing wasn’t difficult for me. But, in the same way, it would be dishonest of me if I didn’t make it clear that I have absolutely no regrets about any of it.

Even though they are now relegated to the cellar, I have kept my braces, all five of them, each stored in its grey bag with “Isico” written on it in big blue letters. I have never put them on since my treatment came to an end, but occasionally I go and get them out. 

Had it not been for them, I might now have a curve measuring more than 30°, and would probably be in much more pain than I ever experienced during the treatment

I well remember going to see Prof. Negrini for my very last visit.  Inside my head, a voice was crying out: “Please, tell me it’s all over!”. Well, it was! With the help and support of Prof. Negrini and all the Isico doctors and physiotherapists, I really had done it!

I left his office and burst into tears. I went on crying all afternoon, but they were tears of great joy. 

I was elated. It was over. I had won my battle“.

SEAS in adults

Over the past 13 years or more, we have published dozens of posts and thousands of comments on our blog dedicated to scoliosis.
The Isico blog is a dedicated space where patients can ask questions and swap experiences, but it is also a place where those involved in treating scoliosis can take a more in-depth look at a series of topics and also engage with patients.

SEAS in adults

“You’re too old now”, “Your scoliosis has stopped now that you’ve finished growing”, “If you want to, do some exercise”… How often do adults with vertebral deformities like scoliosis or hyperkyphosis hear things like this?
Our patients often tell us that on reaching adulthood they become aware of physical changes, in their back, their balance and their height, and these patients therefore start looking for answers and treatments.
The natural ageing process does not spare our back and changes are quite normal and to be expected: when they occur, it is important to get active in order to restore elasticity and strength to joints and muscles. But ageing is an entirely different situation compared with the occurrence of deviations of the spine in young people, in whom we seek to modify the bone structures and consequently reduce the degrees of curvature.
Scientific studies in recent years have clarified a number of aspects, that are worth bearing in mind:

1. Scoliosis exceeding 30 degrees at bone maturity, generally reached between 17 and 19 years of age, is at risk of progressing over the years, resulting in a worsening of the existing curves: and the higher the measurement, the greater the risk of worsening.
2. Will scoliosis inevitably lead to back pain? Absolutely NOT!
3. Does having a correct lateral spinal profile (lordosis-kyphosis) protect us against reduction of our quality of life due to disability and pain? YES, it does.

In the light of all this, it is important to know that in adults, too, it is possible to intervene both to correct postural abnormalities and to prevent and/or slow down worsening of scoliosis over time: our approach (SEAS) aims to do just this.
As an effect of the force of gravity, and also the curves that are already present, a scoliotic back will tend to drop down in the direction of the curve, and in many cases, there will also be a forward shift of the trunk. Simple physical activity alone, however useful and beneficial this might be, is not sufficient to counteract this phenomenon.
This can only be achieved through specific exercises designed to provide support for the structures of the spine in the opposite direction, and these reinforcement exercises must have precise and individual characteristics, in other words, they must be tailored to the individual patient.

The movements to be carried out must be chosen according to very specific priorities, and this is why it is necessary to turn to qualified professionals who have expertise in dealing with these conditions in adults, using approaches that have been shown to be effective.
The SEAS method requires constant collaboration on the part of the patient and seeks to make him “responsible for himself”.
The exercises are carefully worked out for each individual patient. They are initially performed under the guidance of the therapist and then performed independently, with the patient doing daily repetitions, at home.
Sessions with the therapist are initially scheduled monthly, although this frequency is subsequently reduced, possibly even to only once every three months, and patients are given exercise sheets to follow at home.
It takes at least six months to obtain appreciable results, sufficient to motivate patients to continue and thereby ensure they remain fit well into old age.

Best Practice Guidelines for bracing in AIS

Which are the guidelines for using a brace in idiopathic scoliosis treatment? The study “Establishing consensus on the best practice guidelines for the use of bracing in adolescent idiopathic scoliosis”, just published by the journal Spine Deformity, collected 38 experts who developed a consensus on 67 items across ten domains of bracing which were consolidated into the final best practice recommendations.
Among the experts, from surgeons to physiatrists and physiotherapists, prof. Stefano Negrini, scientific director of Isico: “Bracing is the mainstay of conservative treatment in Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis (AIS), but currently there is significant variability in the practice of brace treatment for AIS and, therefore, there is a strong need to develop best practice guidelines (BPG) for bracing in AIS“.
How did you go about developing a common consensus?
Following a review of the literature, three iterative surveys were administered. Topics included bracing goals, indications for starting and discontinuing bracing, brace types, brace prescription, radiographs, physical activities, and physiotherapeutic scoliosis-specific exercises. A face-to-face meeting was then conducted that allowed participants to vote for or against the inclusion of each item. Agreement of 80% throughout the surveys and face-to-face meeting was considered consensus. Items that did not reach consensus were discussed and revised, and repeat voting for consensus was performed.
 “A common adherence to these BPGs is fundamental for developing common protocols on an international level – ends prof. Negrini – furthermore, this consensus on the guidelines will lead to fewer sub-optimal outcomes in patients with AIS by reducing the variability in AIS bracing practices, and provide a framework for future research”.

Isico involved in an international research project: brace versus plaster cast

An international project involving clinical centres in 40 countries in the US, Canada, Europe and Asia has just started. Target? A comparison between the use of plaster casts and braces in the treatment of infantile scoliosis.
Isico is one of the centres involved, thus representing Italy, expressly invited given the clinical and research experience gained over the years.

The project manager is Prof. Stuart L. Weinstein, referent Dr Lori A. Dolan, both from the American University of Iowa. The target enrollment is 440 subjects (220 patients and 220 parents). For Isico, the head researcher is Prof. Negrini, while Dr Donzelli is involved as the research referent.

We recall that infantile (early-onset) idiopathic scoliosis (IEOS) is a relatively rare disease affecting 40 out of 100,000 children. Defined as an idiopathic curve measuring > 20 degrees in those less than three years of age, the natural history of IEOS is variable with some curves resolving spontaneously and others quickly progressing to such a degree that severe pulmonary disease and shortened life span may occur. Casting, and less frequently bracing, have been used to treat this condition in hopes of resolving the curve or at least delaying surgical interventions.

The plaster cast is widely used for these early forms of scoliosis, but a plaster requires hospitalization, sedation, and daily handling is much less comfortable for hygiene than a removable brace.

“During the two-year duration of the project, funded by the University of Iowa and The Orthopedic Research and Education Foundation, – explains Dr Donzelli – we will bring between 5 and 10 cases treated at our Institute to research purposes. Isico has several years of experience in the use of braces; our participation will not involve the application of plaster casts; our results will be compared with those of other centres that apply these casts “.

A Brace classification study

The study Brace Classification Study Group (BCSG): part one – definitions and atlas, published by Scoliosis and Disorders,  represents the first part of the SOSORT consensus in addressing the definitions and providing a visual atlas of bracing.
Prof. Stefano Negrini, Scientific Director of Isico, is one of the authors who belong to a panel of professionals named the Brace Classification Study Group
Prof. Negrini explains: “The current increase in types of scoliosis braces defined by a surname or a town makes scientific classification essential. Currently, it is a challenge to compare braces and specify the indications of each brace. A precise definition of the characteristics of current braces is needed“. 
As such, the International Society for Scoliosis Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Treatment (SOSORT) mandated the Brace Classification Study Group (BCSG) to address the pertinent terminology and brace classification.
The BCSG introduced several pertinent domains to characterize bracing systems.
The domains are defined to allow for analysis of each brace system. The BCSG has reached a consensus on 139 terms related to bracing and has provided over 120 figures to serve as an atlas for educational purposes. 
During the annual meeting of the International Society for Scoliosis Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Treatment (SOSORT) in Athens in 2008, Prof. Negrini presented a new classification under the acronym BRACE MAP.
BRACE MAP derives from the following terms: Building, Rigidity, Anatomical classification, Construction of the Envelope, Mechanism of action, and Plane of action. Each item was composed of two to seven classificatory elements defined using one or two letters in order to refer specifically to the characteristics of the brace throughout the classification.  
“A visual atlas of various brace types is provided – ends prof. Negrini – This is the first clinical terminology tool for bracing related to scoliosis based on the current scientific evidence and formal multidisciplinary consensus”.

How often should a brace be changed?

Receiving their first brace is a key moment in the treatment of youngsters affected by spinal deformities.
This is the brace that shows them exactly what the treatment consists of. They learn about the pads, which are carefully positioned to correct their back; they become familiar with the fastener and how to adjust it to the right tightness, as well as how the brace sits under the armpits. They also have to get used to the shoulder pads and, quite simply, the weight of the plastic.

Surprising as it may seem, some youngsters even grow quite attached to their first brace as, over the weeks and months, it starts to become a part of their daily life and less of a problem. This “friend”, which they sometimes find irritating, especially early on, gradually feels less and less bulky, and in fact there will eventually come a point when it is too small. After all, while the brace stays the same, the youngster inside it grows of course!

For this reason, a new brace will be needed from time to time. It certainly isn’t possible to use the same one from the start to the end of the treatment. But there are also other reasons why a brace needs to be replaced, the first and most obvious being that, like any object used on a daily basis and for a number of hours each day, it starts to wear out. Indeed, after a time, it is subject to breaking, or some of its parts may no longer be intact.

A further reason, and this is perhaps the most important, is that the brace, especially the first one, moulds the youngster’s back so much that after a few months it becomes necessary to construct a new one adapted to its changing volumes. Unless braces are updated to take this aspect into account, they simply cannot work at full efficiency.

The young scoliosis patient’s back changes not only as an effect of the brace, but also because he/she is normally still growing.
In this stage of development, it is perfectly normal to get taller and heavier. A brace can usually tolerate slight increases in height and weight, but when these are more marked it will start to feel uncomfortable. Even just looking at the youngster in his/her brace can be enough to tell you that the time has come to start thinking about getting a new one made.  
From the second brace onwards, more time can usually elapse between braces. It may even be enough to get a new one about once a year.

Youngsters are often anxious at the prospect of changing their brace, fearing that the new one will be uncomfortable. Actually, however, they are unlikely to experience the same discomfort they had at the very start of the treatment.
In fact, in most cases they will find the new brace is more “comfortable”, given that it replaces one that had become too short and tight, and so no longer adequate. Furthermore, having already had to get used to wearing a brace, these “experienced” patients will be better able to recognise, quickly, any problems with the new one.
This will allow them to give the orthopaedic technician clear feedback, useful for making it fit better.  

A comparison of the Chêneau and Sforzesco braces

Unfortunately, it has become common to think of braces in the same way as we do drugs. But before we go any further, we need to make one thing clear: whereas we all know that aspirin is not the same as paracetamol, in the case of a brace, the name doesn’t really mean anything specific.
A brace is a product that is made-to-measure for the individual patient, and therefore the success of bracing treatment depends not on the name of the brace, but on how correctly it has been constructed for the particular patient. If the pads are incorrectly positioned, or if the brace is constructed so that it sits too low or presses too much on one side, it may even contribute to worsening rather than improving the scoliosis. 

The names of the different braces, therefore, are meaningful only to those who prescribe them. 

Finally, adding to the confusion, Dr Chêneau gave his name to two completely different types of brace: the first Chêneau is much more symmetrical than the second one, which, on the other hand, is clearly asymmetrical. Although the second Chêneau brace is the one most commonly used worldwide, we prefer to use the first one, for two reasons: first of all, it is discreet (practically invisible under clothes) and second, in constructing it, we are able to apply the same principles that characterise the Sforzesco, which is the brace developed at our own centre. For this reason, the Chêneau that we use at Isico has been given a new name: we call it the Sibilla- Chêneau, in honour of Dr Sibilla, a pioneer of our school.

So, how do the Sibilla-Chêneau and the Sforzesco differ? They differ in several features, which determine the choice of one over the other on a case-by-case basis. The decision to prescribe one type of brace rather than another must always be taken by a medical specialist.

Let’s start with the material: the Sibilla-Chêneau, used at Isico, is of monovalve construction and it is made of polyethylene, whereas the Sforzesco has two valves and is made from a much more rigid material. Its two parts are linked to posterior fasteners, and there is sometimes an aluminium rod at the back, too. Being more rigid, the Sforzesco has shown the same efficacy as the old system of plaster casting, but with the huge advantage of being removable for bathing/showering.

The Sibilla-Chêneau tends to be used to treat milder cases with less rigid scoliotic curves; it is also preferred for pre-pubertal patients. The Sforzesco, on the other hand, is used for more severe scoliosis with more rigid curves (for example, in youngsters with greater bone maturation). 

In some cases, patients start off with a Sibilla-Chêneau brace but subsequently switch to a Sforzesco one if the scoliosis becomes too aggressive (a decision reflecting the concept that the treatment should evolve gradually): on a hypothetical treatment scale, we can say that the Sforzesco (a super-rigid brace) is one step up from the Sibilla-Chêneau (a rigid brace).

At Isico, both these braces are prepared in accordance with the SPoRT (Symmetrical, Patient-oriented, Rigid, Three-dimensional) concept of bracing.

 “Symmetrical” means that the brace, externally, appears almost perfectly symmetrical, which makes it unobtrusive and helps to replicate the natural shape of the human body. In other words, for aesthetic reasons, it is outwardly symmetrical. By contrast, internally the brace acts asymmetrically, exerting a three-dimensional corrective action on the deformity. 

The brace is defined “Patient-oriented” on account of its wearability, and therefore tolerability. Being very closely fitting, it moves with the patient, and it does not restrict arm and leg movements at all. Furthermore, since it is easy to conceal, patients accept it readily, rather than merely putting up with it.

The term “Rigid” refers to the type of material used.

Finally, “Three-dimensional” refers to the corrective action of this type of brace on the spine; technically speaking, the brace pushes in a down-up direction; overall, the transmission of the corrective forces to the spine is carefully balanced in such a way as to obtain optimal correction in all three planes of space, without any of the three being allowed to dominate.

As explained at the start, another type of Chêneau brace is also used worldwide; in Italy, we call this the Chêneau 2000: it is an asymmetrical brace that uses expansion chambers. It remains clearly asymmetrical, even externally.  We, on the other hand, prefer to use the symmetrical version of the Chêneau, in order to respect the SPoRT concept mentioned above and also because it favours compliance. Indeed, applying our school of thought, we have obtained, in our patients, the best bracing results recorded anywhere in the world, and this is thanks, in part, to the type of braces we use. Naturally, braces only work if patients actually wear them, and the easier they are to conceal under clothes, the more patients will wear them.

Active self correction and stabilization: an Isico letter to the editor

It has just been published a letter to the editor  “The active self-correction component of scoliosis-specific exercises has results in the long term, while the stabilization component is sufficient in the short term” in the scientific journal Prosthetics and Orthotics International

“This is a comment to the study “Core stabilization exercises versus scoliosis-specific exercises in moderate idiopathic scoliosis treatment” –explains dr. Alessandra Negrini, Isico physiotherapist and author of the letter – the authors of the research compared two groups included Scientific Exercises Approach to Scoliosis (SEAS) and core stabilization. Scoliosis-specific exercise schools like SEAS include two main components: active self-correction (ASC) and stabilization. Consequently, a common intervention was provided to the two groups (stabilization) in this study, while the SEAS group also received ASC”.

Follow-up X-rays were taken after only 4 months. According to the Society on Scoliosis Orthopaedic and Rehabilitation Treatment (SOSORT)/Scoliosis Research Society (SRS) criteria, these results should be classified as a very short-term assessment. No significant difference was found between the two interventions. The patients were more adherent to the brace than to the exercise therapy. “Unfortunately, the authors did not mention if there was a difference in the adherence to bracing between the groups: this variable is expected to impact the results more than the type of exercises -adds dr. Negrini – Experts agree that stabilization exercises are more important during the first treatment phase (when the brace maintains for many hours every day the alignment of the spine and exercises are aimed to counteract muscle impairment). Exercises in ASC are more important in maintaining the obtained results when the brace weaning phase starts, when the patients should live sustaining in correction their spine without the brace support”. 

It is important for the future to determine when to start ASC: immediately (even if it could add nothing to stabilization) or when weaning starts (when it could be too late)?

The full letter:

Friends and brace

Adolescence and bracing are two challenges that can be difficult to face simultaneously. 

In our view, this is perfectly natural and understandable.

Adolescence is usually perceived as a difficult phase during which young people are still immature, tend to be irrational, and struggle to control their emotions. However, research studies focusing on the development of the adolescent brain have recently debunked these myths, allowing adolescence to be understood, from a more modern perspective, as a life stage characterised by numerous possibilities, great creativity, and a desire to experiment.

However, it is also a time of great changes, when youngsters are particularly vulnerable. Their increasing need for freedom and independence sees them looking outside their immediate family; accordingly, friends assume a more and more central role, becoming the basis and starting point for building their self-awareness and personal identity.

At this age, then, finding yourself faced with the prospect of wearing a rigid brace for up to 23/24 hours a day certainly isn’t easy.

A young person who has just been prescribed a brace can experience many different emotions, which vary from individual to individual: some will feel angry, others sad; some may be fearful or feel ashamed.

Shame is an emotion that stems from the fear that others will judge us. What are my friends going to say when they see me in a brace? What will they think if they find out I have scoliosis? 

In adolescence, precisely because this is a time when we are still working out who we are, we can be particularly sensitive to the opinions of others; we want to fit in, and we fear rejection. 

For these reasons, having to wear a brace can be seen as an obstacle to the formation of friendships and early romantic attachments. It becomes a secret to be kept strictly within the family. Some youngsters try to keep their brace hidden under their clothes and avoid physical contact with others, to the point of avoiding those activities in which their brace would have to be exposed, and thus depriving themselves of a whole series of experiences. 

In this way, they become victims of their own secret.

Hiding a brace requires a lot of effort. Is it really the best thing to do?

Even though hiding is a natural and automatic response when we feel ashamed, it is also the most harmful. Instead, the least natural and least automatic (i.e. “telling the truth” and showing yourself) is the most beneficial! When you find out that you have to wear a brace, the best thing to do is to tell your friends and classmates about it immediately. Although this might seem difficult, it is far easier than trying to keep the fact a secret. Start by telling your closest friends, and then gradually share the news with everyone else.

You really have nothing at all to be ashamed of. Quite the opposite: you should be proud of what you are doing in order to have a healthy back!

Authors: Irene Ferrario, psychologist and Antonella Napolitano, physiotherapist