By Kelin Hall
Christopher Sullivan, MD,
is suspicious of exceptional posture. Having surgically straightened
more than 500 spines, he wonders if those who stand straightest have
undergone some procedure.
Sullivan, assistant professor of
surgery at the Medical Center, is one of a handful of orthopaedic
surgeons in Chicago who specialize in treating scoliosis, or left-right
spinal curvature. The specialty requires six to seven years of training
after medical school.
Recently, during his bi-weekly scoliosis
clinic at the Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago,
Sullivan held a level-like device to the spine of 14-year-old Paula
Christianson, who bent forward towards her toes. “Up here you’re
straight as an arrow,” Sullivan told Paula, her concerned parents and
grandparents, “but down in the lumbar, your scoliosis is about 40
“She’s always carrying those heavy books, could that be the cause?” Paula’s grandmother asked.
one’s proven that carrying your desk around on your back will do it,”
Sullivan said. He explained some children are born with spinal
deformities or develop scoliosis as a result of neurological disorders,
but that in most cases, such as Paula’s, the cause remains unknown. “It
seems to be related to something genetic, but the research is still
developing,” he said.
Most cases of scoliosis are subtle and
stabilize when a child stops growing. But if a spine curves more than 40
degrees while a child is growing, it will generally continue to curve
even after the child reaches full height. Such curves lead to chronic
back pain and can cause the rib cage to push on the lungs and heart,
restricting blood and air flow.
Sullivan closely monitors
patients’ scoliosis: “If we see an 11-year-old with a moderate spinal
curve, we’ll follow up every three to six months for four years.” To
manage the repeat visits and about 200 active cases, Sullivan and
clinical nurse associate Roberta Reyes, RN, MS, APN, see 20 to 25
patients, at their clinic every other Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
has worked with Sullivan for three years and chose to handle all of the
clinic scheduling. “It lets me assess patients’ conditions so I can
fit them in if it’s urgent,” Reyes said, noting that they are generally
booked out three months in advance. “It gives families a personal
contact, helping them to relax and understand the condition.”
stop curves from worsening as a child grows, Sullivan often prescribes
back braces worn at night, which stabilize about 70 percent of the
curves he treats. In the most severe cases, Sullivan performs a
segmented spinal instrumentation surgery, attaching a pair of titanium
rods to the spine that hold it in correct alignment. In less than a
year, the patient’s vertebrae fuse into one solid, straight bone. The
rods are generally not removed; they weigh less than a pound, and are
thin enough that you don’t see or feel them. Six months after surgery,
patients can do just about anything, he said, “except pro football or