New technology reduces operations for early-onset scoliosis patients

Will Imbus doesn’t like to sit on the sidelines. The 9-year-old sports fanatic from East Dubuque, Ill., loves playing baseball and being outdoors, but unlike most kids his age, he knows not to take these activities for granted.

At just 9 months old, Will was diagnosed with early-onset scoliosis (EOS)—an abnormal, side-to-side curve of the spine in children under 5 years old. Left untreated, the curve can impede lung growth and development.

“The most important time for lung development is the first four years of life,” says University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital orthopedic surgeon Stuart Weinstein, MD. “So anything that restricts the chest cavity or shortens the spine will impair lung growth, and hence, shorten a child’s life.”

The traditional treatment for EOS requires patients to undergo operations where titanium rods are surgically implanted into the back, across the spinal curvature. Every six months, surgeons reopen the incision site and lengthen those rods to keep up with a child’s growth.

“It causes tremendous stress in the life of a child and the family,” says Weinstein. “Plus, it [an inpatient surgery] means a few days off from work for parents and some time off from school for the child. There are also a lot of costs associated with having an operation every six months.”

Since age 5, Will has had seven growing rod lengthening surgeries.

“Every time he goes down for surgery, he has restrictions and pain afterwards,” says Will’s father, Jeff.

Will Imbus's x-rayFortunately, repeated growing rod surgeries for Will and other EOS patients are becoming a thing of the past. In January 2015, UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital became the only hospital in Iowa to use newly available technology for all EOS patients called the MAGEC (MAGnetic Expansion Control) Spinal Growing Rod. Rather than undergoing surgery twice a year, these new rods allow children to spend time in an outpatient setting, while an external controller non-invasively manipulates a magnet in the rod until it reaches the appropriate length.

For most children with EOS, this new technology will eliminate six to 10 surgical procedures during their childhoods. It will also as eliminate post-surgical restrictions, time spent in the hospital, and hospital costs associated with inpatient hospital stays.

Will underwent surgery to implant the MAGEC rods in March 2015. After wearing a temporary brace to protect his incision site, he had his first outpatient lengthening procedure the following June. He will continue to return every three to four months for lengthenings, and he will have one more major surgery to remove the MAGEC rods and put in permanent rods when he has finished growing.

Weinstein and his team—who care for almost all of the state’s pediatric spinal deformity patients—are in the process of replacing the traditional growing rods with the MAGEC rods in all of their other EOS patients. So far, the feedback from patients and families who have received the MAGEC rods has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I wasn’t quite sure how we or he would handle the rest of these surgeries every six months until we got to the point of the permanent rods,” says Will’s mother, Nicole. “I don’t think there’s anything I could say great enough to show my gratitude.”

Despite all he has been though, Will has maintained his quick sense of humor and bright smile, while forming lasting relationships with his UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital care team.

“I feel like they’re my family because I get to see them a lot,” says Will. “They give me really good care.

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