Scoliosis Clinic Sets Children Straight

scoliosis clinic
Photo by David Christopher

Left to right: Christopher Sullivan, MD, and Roberta Reyes, RN, APN, are helping more than 200 children overcome scoliosis.

scoliosis xray
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 degrees.”

“She’s always carrying those heavy books, could that be the cause?” Paula’s grandmother asked.

"No 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.

Reyes 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.”

To 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 skydiving.”