At the age of 12, Emma Schwichtenberg grew several inches in a few months. Prior to her growth spurt, Emma had received a clean bill of health from her pediatrician. However, within those few months, she began experiencing unexplained back pain.
“I started getting an ache in my back every day,” says Emma. “At first, the pain was just annoying and I didn’t think it was anything. As the months went on, it became worse, but I didn’t want to tell my parents. Then one day, I came home sobbing because it hurt so much.”
Tonia, Emma’s mother, took her back to the pediatrician, who was shocked at the rapid onset of her symptoms. Emma had physical signs of scoliosis, including a raised shoulder. The pediatrician referred Emma to Torin Cunningham, M.D., medial director, Orthopedic Center, MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach.
Dr. Cunningham diagnosed her with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, which is an abnormal curvature of the spine that appears in late childhood. Instead of growing straight, the spine develops a side-to-side curvature, usually in an elongated "S" or "C" shape.
“Bracing for scoliosis can keep the spinal curve from growing large enough to require surgery,” says Dr. Cunningham. “Bracing is generally used to prevent scoliosis from getting worse when a curve is progressive (has increased by more than 5 degrees), which was the case with Emma.”
Scoliosis Runs in the Family
While the causes of adolescent idiopathic scoliosis are unknown, having a close relative, such as a sibling, with it increases a child's risk of developing the condition.
Immediately, Dr. Cunningham screened Emma’s 9-year-old sister Julia. While free of symptoms, Julia also was diagnosed with scoliosis, with a less severe curve.
“I wasn’t really that scared when I was diagnosed, since Emma had been through it,” says Julia. “It made me feel better that she had it too.”
Dr. Cunningham began to monitor Julia, eventually recommending a back brace. Because she was diagnosed so early, it was likely her treatment and long-term outcomes would be successful.
A Big Decision
After wearing a brace for a year, Emma sensed something was off. “I went in for a regular checkup, and before that day I remember thinking it had gotten worse.”
An x-ray confirmed that Emma’s spine had gotten worse. Together, the Schwichtenberg Family made the difficult decision to move forward with surgery.
“I was in shock,” says Emma. “I had never gone through anything like this before. I’ve never even broken a bone, so it didn’t really register until I woke up from surgery.”
Dr. Cunningham performed a spinal fusion surgery at the Surgical Center at Miller Children’s & Women’s. During the surgery, the abnormal curved spinal bones were realigned and fused together. Cobalt chrome rods also were inserted to correct the curvature and maintain the alignment.
"Spinal fusion effectively stops the motion and growth of the spine through the area where the fusion is performed, which is why the procedure is generally not recommended as an initial treatment," says Dr. Cunningham. "But since Emma was older and because her curve was reaching a severe level, surgery was the best option to prevent continued worsening of the curvature over time which might cause pain or pulmonary problems."
Emma was hospitalized for a week after surgery. Her road to recovery was painful, and it would be a month before she could carry out day-to-day activities.
The Next Phase
A year after surgery, Emma started as a freshman at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, where she joined the volleyball team. Now at 15, she also competes in club volleyball.
During her experience, Emma noticed there wasn’t a lot of support for teens with scoliosis. This inspired the focus for her Gold Award, which is the highest honor within the Girls Scouts. She plans to achieve it by writing a book to help others through their journey with scoliosis.
While Julia’s journey with scoliosis isn’t over, she doesn’t let it keep her from being active. She’s on the volleyball team at Hughes Middle School, and also competes in club volleyball.
When she’s not serving up competition, Julia continues to wear her back brace and Dr. Cunningham keeps a close eye on her. The goal is to avoid surgery, but with her sister by her side, scoliosis doesn’t seem to faze this spunky 12-year-old.