Braces for the spine get young gymnast up and tumbling

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Imagine, the faster you grow, the faster your spine curves. That's what happens when you're a child with scoliosis. It can be painful and debilitating.

Now, there's a new experimental procedure to correct the curvature.

Ever since 11-year-old Sophia Clem can remember, she's loved to bend and bounce and flip and flop.

"I just have had quite a lot of balance, and on the bars I just ended up getting high scores," Sophia said.

But this is the first time in five months she's been back in the gym. Sophia was worried her tumbling days were numbered, because she was diagnosed at age 7 with scoliosis.

"It just kind of looked like a curve," she said.

"We tried bracing, physical therapy, chiropractic care," said Denise Clem, Sophia's mom.

But her condition got worse. What started as a 14-degree curve was now 36 degrees.

Pediatric orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jaren Riley's main concern for kids with scoliosis is keep them moving and maintain their range of motion. One option is a traditional spinal fusion that would likely stop Sophia's growth or a new experimental surgery called vertebral body tethering.

"We place these screws, one screw into each of these individual bones of the spine," Riley said. "And then, between each of those screws, we place a rope, then tension that rope between the screws to make this curve straighten out."

It can be helpful to think of it like braces for the spine.

"So, the long side of the spine stays put, the short side keeps growing and the curve starts to straighten out," Riley said.

Doctors saw immediate results.

"It feels like a huge step forward, quite honestly," Riley said.

"The one thing I want to get back is like handstands or cartwheels on the beam, because they're really fun to do," Sophia said.

The surgery is not Food and Drug Administration-approved. Risks include injury to the heart and lungs, infection, nerve damage and paralysis. Because it is new, long-term issues are not known.

REPORT: MB #4624

BACKGROUND: Scoliosis is a condition that causes the spine to curve sideways. There are several different types of scoliosis that affect children and adolescents. By far, the most common type is "idiopathic," which means the exact cause is not known. Most cases of idiopathic scoliosis occur between age 10 and the time a child is fully grown. Scoliosis is rarely painful—small curves often go unnoticed by children and their parents and are first detected during a school screening or at a regular check-up with the pediatrician. Research shows that in some cases genetics plays a role in the development of scoliosis. Approximately 30 percent of patients with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis have a family history of the condition. (Source:

TREATMENT: Treatment of scoliosis is based on the severity of the curve and the chances of the curve getting worse. There are three main categories of treatment: observation, bracing (for example, thoracolumbosacral orthosis or TLSO back brace), and surgery. Juvenile idiopathic scoliosis has the highest risk for getting worse of all of the idiopathic types of scoliosis. Bracing can be tried early if the curve is not very severe. The goal is to prevent the curve from getting worse until the person stops growing. Since the curve starts early in these people, and they have a lot of time left to grow, there is a higher chance for needing more aggressive treatment or surgery. (Source:

NEW TECHNOLOGY: Jaren Riley, MD, Pediatric Orthopedic Surgeon at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children talks about vertebral body tethering, "So essentially in a curved spine, you have a longer side and a shorter side. And we go through a camera approach inside the chest to the long side of the spine and we hold onto it to stop the growth. So, the long side of the spine stays put. The short side keeps growing. And the curve starts to straighten out over time. Now what holds the bones together in a fusion is a rod and then bones that grow together to become solid with this surgery. We have a rope that holds the bones together, so you still have motion there and you still have the ability to turn, bend and to twist while the spine continues to grow into a more natural shape." (Source: Jaren Riley, MD)