Lifewatch: Scoliosis

ARIZONA -- Up to five of every 1,000 children are diagnosed with scoliosis.

Scoliosis is a curvature of the spine that can be minor, but can also have serious consequences if the curvature gets worse.

But now, there is a new, less painful way to treat it.

At age 14, Matthew Barmore was already 6'1" and had a passion for basketball.  But, his doctor saw a nearly 50 degree curvature in his spine and diagnosed him with scoliosis.

"Before surgery, the lump on his back caused by the spine curvature was about the span of both my hands together," said Matthew's mom, Rebecca Barmore.

"If the curve progresses, it can have profound effects on heart and lung function," said Orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. Mark Flood.

Surgery to correct scoliosis used be done by cutting a large piece of bone from the Iliac Crest in the pelvis, then using it to create a spinal fusion so the curve doesn't get worse.

"The problem with taking bone from the iliac crest is it's a significant source of pain sometimes even permanent pain. It requires another incision, potential risk of infection, and that bone is gone forever," said Dr. Flood.

But, Matthew was able to take advantage of a new therapy to repair his spine, using stem cells harvested from him own bone marrow.

Used with bone from the bone bank, Matthew's stem cells would act as a sort of catalyst to support the growth of new bone along the spine, and work with permanent screws and rods to fuse it into the correct position.

The surgery reduced Matthew's curvature from nearly 50 degrees to just 15 degrees.

And three months after surgery, Matthew was already playing basketball.


Center for Spinal Disorders and Pediatric Orthopedics

(480) 464-9400

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BACKGROUND: Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine. In stead of the spine forming a straight line up and down one's back, it curves from side to side, often in an 'S' formation. It's a condition that often runs in families, though the cause of the malformation remains unknown. Many schools and pediatricians screen for the condition, which often begins in childhood. However, adult scoliosis can develop after age 18, often as a result of a childhood case that was either undiagnosed or left untreated, or a degenerative joint condition in the spine. Screening for the condition is fairly simple as the spinal curvature can usually be seen from behind when the patient bends forward.

Patients are usually monitored until they develop a 25 degree to 40 degree curvature or greater. After that point, doctors will usually put the patient in a brace to help straighten the spine out and/or stop progression. When the curvature is beyond 40 degrees to 50 degrees, or if the brace does not stop progression, surgery is usually recommended. Scoliosis is not a painful condition, so sometimes patients can develop an advanced condition before seeking medical attention. Spinal fusion -- when two or more vertebrae are fused together, preventing further progression of the cure -- is the most common surgery method available for scoliosis. Hooks and rods or screws are used to correct the deformity, then bone from the pelvis is often used to fuse the vertebrae. Unfortunately, spinal fusion can limit a patient's motion after surgery and harvesting bone from the pelvis can be a significant source of pain for patients.

STEM CELLS: Stem cells are found in most multi-cellular organisms and are capable of regenerating themselves and can differentiate into a variety of specialized cell types. Contrary to their name, adult stem cells are found in both children and adults and refer to cells found in a born human being. Embryonic stem cells, however, are the controversial cells collected from early stage human embryos -- about four or five days old in humans, consisting of 50 to 150 cells.

USING STEM CELLS FOR SCOLIOSIS: Using adult stem cells collected from bone marrow, doctors are now able to correct scoliosis of the spine. During surgery, doctors still use screws and rods to correct the curvature of the spine. After that step, however, harvesting bone from a patient's pelvis is no longer necessary. Doctors can use the stem cells and bone from the bone bank to create solid fusion along the vertebrae to hold the corrected spine in its new position. Once fusion is solid, patients can return to normal activities. Recovery time is similar to traditional spinal fusion surgery because the same large incision is made in the patient's back. However, the pain from the pelvic bone is eliminated. Some doctors see this stem cell therapy as a more holistic approach to the healing process.

Reported by Kristy Ondo