With magnetic growing rods straightening out the dramatic curve of her spine, Kendall Washington never misses a beat.
Kendall enjoys a great performance – especially when she’s at center stage. Tiny and dynamic, the 8-year-old loves to sing and dance; she twirls, turns and still has energy long after everyone else is exhausted.
For those who know her, Kendall’s joyful movement is not only inspiring, it’s close to miraculous. Diagnosed at the age of two with early-onset scoliosis, the increasing curve of her spine was seemingly unstoppable. By the time she was 6-years-old, the sideways curve had reached nearly 80 degrees. She leaned heavily to the right and basic activities, like walking or sitting, were enough to elicit pain.
“She was just a toddler when she started wearing a back brace,” says LaTisha Williams, Kendall’s mother. “It didn’t do any good. As she grew, her condition worsened.”
Scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine, usually develops just prior to the growth spurt of adolescence. Between two and three percent of 16-year-olds have scoliosis, but only 0.1 percent have a curve over 40 degrees – the point at which surgery might be considered.
Early-onset scoliosis, characterized as a curve of at least 10 to 15 degrees in a child younger than 5, is extremely rare – about one or two cases per 10,000 people. The vast majority of cases self-correct and, in other cases, fitting the child with a brace or a plaster cast will prevent the curve from worsening.
Without treatment, however, a curve can sometimes progress rapidly – as much as 10 degrees or more in just a few months. As the curve becomes more severe, the size of the chest cavity diminishes, leaving less space for the child’s developing lungs.
“Despite a brace, Kendall had a curve of 75 to 80 degrees when I first saw her,” says Torin Cunningham, M.D., medical director, Pediatric Orthopedic Center, Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach. “Without intervention, the curve would have worsened and affected the function of her heart and lungs, resulting in a shortened lifespan. We weren’t about to allow that.”
To treat scoliosis in pediatric patients between 10 and 16 years of age, doctors often perform surgery to fuse some of the vertebrae, or bones that make up the spine. This is a permanent solution to straighten the spine and hold it in place.
“Depending on the pattern and severity of the curve, we usually fuse between 10 and 13 vertebrae,” says Dr. Cunningham. “However, with a patient as young as Kendall, fusion isn’t an option. The surgery would lock her trunk height and lung capacity into that of a 7-year-old.”
For younger patients, like Kendall, doctors have always depended on technology that allows the spine to grow while stabilizing the curve. For many years, the best answer was the traditional growing rod. One or two telescoping rods would be implanted alongside the patient’s spine and then lengthened in small increments as the child grew. Unfortunately, the lengthening process required surgery under general anesthesia.
“Kids had to have surgery every six to nine months and could end up having as many as nine or 10 surgeries,” says Dr. Cunningham. “But new technology has changed all that.”
Just before her 7th birthday, Dr. Cunningham performed surgery to implant “magnetic growing rods” in Kendall’s spine to control her scoliosis. The rods are lengthened using an external magnet to allow her spine to grow rather than requiring a surgery for each of these adjustments - saving her from multiple operations.
As a mother, LaTisha is elated that Kendall has no pain or discomfort during the one-minute lengthening procedure. “She just gets off the table like normal. The doctor takes an x-ray to confirm the lengthening, and off we go.”
A CUT ABOVE
The Pediatric Orthopedic Center at Miller Children’s has a leading spinal deformities program, including advanced scoliosis and kyphosis treatment.
As the only spinal deformities program in Long Beach and one of only four in Southern California, the Center offers parents and children of all ages comprehensive, yet individualized orthopedic care. Because children’s bones vary greatly from adult bones, pediatric orthopedic surgeons undergo additional, detailed training for disorders and injuries in kids.
“We only treat children – no adults – and use specific therapies and surgical techniques that are proven in their growing bones,” says Dr. Cunningham. “Whether it’s an infant or a teen with a sports injury, our team of experts will do everything medically possible to ensure continued healthy bone and joint development.”
Kendall visits Dr. Cunningham every three months to have the rods adjusted. Throughout her growing years, she will rely on Miller Children’s for her care, as her bones continue to develop. The visits do not phase her one bit. She sings, she dances and she continues to light up the room.
“Her passion for life outshines everything,” says LaTisha. “Dr. Cunningham and Miller Children’s were a gift. I don’t know what we would’ve done without them.”