Dancer treated for scoliosis sees successful range of motion with newer procedure

HOUSTON – Scoliosis is a sideways curvature of the spine most often diagnosed in children and teenagers.

Five years ago this summer, Natalia Gonzalez had rods placed in her spine to treat scoliosis.

That operation in the past could jeopardize someone’s range of motion and determine if they could ever compete as an athlete again.

Luckily, medical technology has come a long way in treating the condition.

“When I was in about the fifth grade, it was 13°, so it wasn’t too bad and they just waited to see if I grew and it straightened out, and then it jumped to 60° whenever I was in the eighth grade,” explained Gonzalez.

By the day of surgery, she didn’t know if dancing would ever be possible again.

Dr. Darell Hanson, an orthopedic surgeon at Texas Children’s Hospital, said if she had been operated on a decade ago, they might not have been able to recommend she compete at the level she does now.

“We would have fused the majority of the spine to straighten scoliosis, and that is very good for correcting scoliosis, but the trade-off is you lose quite a bit of range of motion, so most people who had this surgery, 15 or 20 years ago, are essentially not able to participate in any meaningful way in sports and other activities that require a large range of motion,” said Dr. Hanson. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve developed newer instrumentation that has better control of the spine when we’re correcting the spine, and then we’re able to fuse many fewer levels with the scoliosis surgery.”

Gonzalez has a portion of her spine fused. Yet, she’s able to create the illusion of arching her back, which hasn’t limited her dance career.

Instructor Jessalyn Batt worked one-on-one with Gonzalez to help her return to her highest function.

“I looked up what the doctor had listed for her to do and sort of followed that and added in ballet technique,” Batt explained. “We went back to just fundamentals and really took the time testing each movement out with her body to see how things would sort of work with her new rod in her spine.”

Now, Gonzalez said she’s going to Sam Houston State University to pursue a degree in dance and make it her career.

“I love to teach and inspire others because dance was my spark and I want to do that to somebody else. I want them to live the life I’m living,” Gonzalez said.

New technique: Operating from the side

Dr. Hanson said some patients are good candidates for doing this procedure through an incision on their side instead of their back.

That can potentially leave less muscle and tissue damage, therefore, a slightly less painful recovery.

Dr. Hanson says because Gonzalez had such a progressed curve, it wouldn’t have helped her.

Vertebral Body Tethering (VBT)

In the last two years, Dr. Hanson said there’s an even newer surgery for scoliosis that’s done on even younger patients. It requires no fusion of the spine.

He said this operation is new but so far TCH has seen successful outcomes.