New Treatment for Childhood Scoliosis Helps Kids Avoid Repeat Surgeries

Two boys embracing and laughing hard outdoors

A new version of a treatment for the curving of the backbone called early-onset scoliosis can help some very young kids avoid repeat surgeries.

Some children with extreme scoliosis that occurs early in life have spinal curves that cannot be helped by a brace or cast. These children are too young for a spinal fusion surgery because their bodies are still growing.

For decades, the standard of care for this special group of children has been growing rods, in which a surgeon attaches metal rods to the spine to help it grow in a straight line. Unfortunately, the older style of rods have to be lengthened with a surgical procedure every six to eight months. When the spine is closer to the end of growth, the surgeon does a spinal fusion procedure.

The growing rods work for most children, but many must undergo several lengthening surgeries while they grow enough to have a spinal fusion.

The new treatment option, called the MAGEC® system, uses magnetically controlled rods that can be extended. A doctor lengthens the rods using a remote control magnetic field generator during an office visit. This avoids the need for repeat surgeries to lengthen the rods - and without pain while the child is awake in the clinic.

“The MAGEC system really is a kind of magic,” says pediatric orthopedic surgeon Christina Hardesty, MD. “MAGEC rods are helping many children avoid the risks that come with repeat surgeries and multiple anesthetic episodes. We are so lucky to have this as an option now for our smallest patients whose lives would otherwise be disrupted by treatment for their difficult deformity."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the MAGEC system in 2014. Only a few U.S. facilities - including University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital - offer the treatment.

MAGEC rods are not for all children with scoliosis, Dr. Hardesty says.

“Treatment methods depend on the child's age, size, and type of scoliosis,” Dr. Hardesty says. “In addition, patients getting MAGEC rod lengthenings may need to visit the doctor's office more frequently - usually every three months.

“Still, these clinic visits are much easier on most children and families compared to surgeries performed once or twice every year,” Dr. Hardesty says. Treatment options like this can be discussed with our spinal deformity team.”

The orthopedic surgery team at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital can evaluate your child and develop a treatment plan specific to your child's needs.

What is scoliosis in children?

Scoliosis is a deformity of the spine in which the curve measures more than 10 degrees, Dr. Hardesty says.

A normal spine appears straight, but a child with scoliosis has a spine with an S or C shape. The child might look like he or she is leaning to one side or can look like the back, ribs, or shoulder blades are starting to rotate. The curve can happen on the left or right side of the spine, or it can appear on both sides in different places.

For more than 80 percent of the children with scoliosis, the cause is unknown, Dr. Hardesty says. A child can be born with scoliosis or the condition may appear later in life.

“While we commonly think of scoliosis as something that affects teenage girls, there are children who develop scoliosis in the first few years of life,” Dr. Hardesty says. “This is called early-onset scoliosis and it can be much more challenging to treat, because the spine has so much growth remaining.

“It's important to prevent scoliosis curves from becoming severe in children because very large curves can lead to heart and lung problems,” Dr. Hardesty says.

Ongoing research into pediatric scoliosis

UH Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, which has one of the largest growing rod programs in the world, is a founding member of the Growing Spine Study Group (GSSG). This is an international consortium of 30 children's hospitals and medical institutions that treat scoliosis in children.

In addition, all of the spine surgeons at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital are members of the elite Scoliosis Research Society and have contributed to the Early Onset Scoliosis committee as part of their commitment to excellence in the treatment of scoliosis.

Members of the group share information and conduct research about results in patients to further knowledge about treatment options for children as well as develop better outcomes.

Dr. Hardesty recently was lead author of a study that reviewed the most current literature on early onset scoliosis techniques and treatment as part of the Growing Spine Committee of the Scoliosis Research Society.

For more information or to find a Rainbow spine surgeon, call 216-844-7200 or visit rainbow.org.

Related links:

What Parents Need to Know About Scoliosis
What Happens During Scoliosis Surgery

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