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The Scoliosis Test Deenie Wishes She'd Had

I was the poster child for scoliosis at every school I went to as a kid. Before the annual screening, the nurse would have me step out of line and behind the curtain first, before anyone else. I’d lift my shirt and bend down to touch my toes.

“See,” she’d say excitedly to her colleague. “That’s what you’re looking for! That’s what scoliosis looks like!”

And I’d hang out, touching my toes, while they traced my spine with their fingers and muttered things about vertebrae and lower and upper curvatures, forgetting, essentially, that I was there. Eventually, I protested, and still later, my mother requested that I stop being called out to model my unattractive curves. Trust me, this is not what you want for your kid.

But you do want the screening. And if that screening picks up a curve, a new test may help some kids avoid the brace and the whole Deenie scenario. Because the earlier you figure out if your child has scoliosis, and how bad that scoliosis is likely to be, the better the treatment options. Better yet, doctors may figure out that your child won’t need treatment at all (man, what I would have given for that!).

Once the initial curves of scoliosis are spotted, doctors have to assess how much worse they’re likely to become, and how to stop or slow the progression. The typical response is a brace: cumbersome, uncomfortable and worn pretty much 24/7, but designed to prevent the young spine from developing in ways that can cause more serious troubles in an adult. Ideally, the young patient wears the brace until she (scoliosis is far more common in young women than in young men) stops growing, and a dramatic curve is prevented, but doctors never know whether such a curve would have developed in the first place.

The New York Times reports that Axial Biotech has developed a test that uses a saliva sample to measure genetic markers that have been linked to how much scoliosis will worsen over time. If the test shows a curve is unlikely to progress, a child can skip the brace (and limit x-rays and follow-up visits). A child who is likely to get worse can be treated more proactively, with earlier and less invasive surgeries and exercise and (nothing’s perfect) possibly a brace.

Me, I avoided the brace, with a curve that was getting so much worse, so quickly, that a sympathetic doctor concluded I’d need surgery regardless, so why add to my misery in the meantime? It was the very definition of a mixed blessing. Scoliosis tends to run in families, so I watch my own kids carefully, asking them, as those school nurses did, to bend over and touch their toes. My fingers are crossed that they’ll all somehow be poster kids for nothing but a nice straight spine, but at least with new tests and treatments, their version of scoliosis, if they have it, should be easier than mine was. Maybe all they’ll have to do is spit in a test tube, and get on with their lives.

Image courtesy kidshealth.org.

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