Straight talk: Could new scoliosis treatment hold promise?
Judy Blume's 1973 book Deenie plunged a generation of girls into panic over scoliosis, an all-too-common spinal curvature. But some Charlottesville area girls– unlike the book's 13-year old title character– are opting for a therapy that controversially skips the notoriously bulky back brace and, as Deenie found, the cruel taunts of classmates.
"It doesn't have to be this way," says local chiropractor Dolly Garnecki, who denounces braces and surgery as ineffective treatments that put scoliosis sufferers, typically teenage girls, through unnecessary pain.
Kayla Lisa was 11 when her parents learned that she had severe scoliosis.
"I was shocked, frightened," says Kayla's mother, Susan Lisa, who followed doctors orders and had Kayla fitted for a brace to be worn 23 hours a day, removable only for bathing.
Two years later, Kayla's younger sister got the same diagnosis, and each girl wore a brace for several years– with no improvement, says their mother– who recalls hearing the girls crying at night, unable to take full breaths or move comfortably.
While braces have been streamlined since Deenie's day, they still limit the wearer's activities– and the most severe scoliosis cases typically result in surgery to attach a metal rod and fuse the vertebrae, a procedure to lessen pain and improve appearance but which also permanently limits spinal mobility.
"I wasn't going to put them through that," says Lisa, noting that her daughter's spines were straight only while in the brace, but that the curve returned as soon as they removed it. "It wasn't treating the underlying cause of the curvature," she says.
Living in Florida at the time, the family stumbled upon a chiropractor who, like Garnecki, had studied at The Clear Institute, a Minnesota chiropractic academy founded by Dr. Dennis Woggan.
If the treatment Woggan and fellow chiropractor Clayton Stitzel pioneered seems unusual– a special traction chair, vibrating tables, weighted pulley systems to realign the spine, and even special goggles with flashing lights– Lisa says the results convinced her.
"Kayla came out of her first appointment saying, 'Mom, my neck doesn't hurt for the first time,'" recalls Lisa.
Ongoing treatments made the relief last, Lisa says, but when the family moved to Charlottesville last year, they couldn't find a Clear Institute-trained chiropractor– until Garnecki opened her Spinal Health and Wellness clinic on Berkmar Drive in January.
Lisa's daughters– now 19 and 16– have regular appointments as often as once a week, plus nearly an hour of specialized daily exercises aimed, Garnecki says, not only at strengthening muscles to pull the spine into alignment but also at "retraining the brain" to hold the spine straight. Lisa says the treatment is working for both daughters and that the younger one recently saw her curvature, as measured by an x-ray, fall from 55 degrees to 45 degrees.
"I know what kind of pain I was in before," says Kayla, now a rising Radford University junior. "And I feel so much better now."
But not everyone is convinced.
Dr. Mark Abel, head of pediatric orthopedics at UVA, isn't buying the claim that any chiropractic care can erase curves. And in severe curves, 55 percent or more, Abel says there are "irreversible" bone changes.
"The vertebrae are no longer curved; they're wedge shaped," says Abel. "I think that it is impossible to correct the spine through manipulations when dealing with that degree."
It's not just doctors questioning the treatment. David Brown, a chiropractor who is also a Charlottesville city councilor, says he won't treat young patients with severely curved spines ("I'm very conservative when it comes to scoliosis," he says), but instead refers them to orthopedic physicians like Abel.
Abel agrees that chiropractic care and exercise can ease pain by strengthening core muscles, and perhaps keep curves from getting worse; but he doubts significant reversal. He admits, however, that because most parents aren't willing to subject their children to a randomized study, little clinical research exists on either side of the debate.
Garnecki says she's heard such doubts before, and believes research will prove what she says she has seen in her own patients.
"This is really new," she explains. "Most [doctors and chiropractors] haven't even heard of this type of treatment."
Abel, though conceding he's unfamiliar with the Clear Institute, notes that some scoliosis cases stop progressing naturally, so it's not necessarily fair to credit an alternative treatment.
UVA is now part of a long-term national study on back braces, and Garnecki welcomes the data. "We have to keep searching, doing research on what works, being open-minded," says Garnecki.
And Susan Lisa, who has watched her daughters undergo both traditional and alternative treatments, thinks she's already learned something.
"As a mom," she says, "it gives me great peace to know there is a method of treatment that is bringing relief."