Beverly Wahlenmaier loves spending time with her family. But when her back pain was so excruciating it had her in a wheel chair in “The Happiest Place on Earth” — Disneyland — she said enough was enough.
“I was in so much pain I couldn’t do it,” Wahlenmaier said.
In desperate need of pain relief, Wahlenmaier was referred to Dr. Derek Taggard, who does spine surgery and neurosurgery, with Community Health Partners.
Dr. Taggard says Wahlenmaier had a mild spinal deformity called degenerative scoliosis, also known as adult scoliosis.
What’s adult scoliosis?
Adult scoliosis is the rotation and curvature of the spine. Naturally, the spine has a forward and a backward curve, but with scoliosis, it rotates and develops a side-to-side curve. Any sideways spinal curve of at least 10 degrees is considered scoliosis. Dr. Taggard says that about 10% of the population has some degree of scoliosis.
Adult scoliosis can happen for two reasons: either you had scoliosis as a child and it’s gotten worse (adult idiopathic scoliosis), or you’ve developed adult degenerative scoliosis as you’ve aged. Dr. Taggard says when degenerative scoliosis occurs, it’s really a combination of two factors.
“One is the deterioration of the disk space in the front of the spine. As the water content is lost and there’s natural deterioration in the disk space, there’s increased degenerative forces and more load share on the back part of the joints of the spine called the facet joints.”
How adult scoliosis can affect you
Dr. Taggard also says it’s not just the back pain alone that affect patients — there can also be nerve symptoms in the legs that make doing everyday activities difficult for those with adult scoliosis.
There can be a range of difficult changes caused by scoliosis says Dr. Taggard: “Whether it’s radiculopathy or a single pinched nerve in the back, or a presentation where patients have significant lumbar stenosis and they have difficulty walking because of pain or numbness in their legs or the feeling that their legs will give out.”
And Wahlenmaier knows those feelings all too well.
“Doing cooking, going into the grocery store — those sort of things, you’re limited. And so, I would choose one or the other. Maybe go into the grocery store, then I’d have to lay down,” she says.
Symptoms of adult scoliosis
If you have adult scoliosis, you may not develop any symptoms. However, you might feel pain from arthritis, not be able to stand upright, or have weakness in your legs.
Symptoms of adult scoliosis may include:
Uneven alignment of the pelvis and hips
Shooting pain down the legs
Treatments for adult scoliosis
Adults with scoliosis have two main treatment options, either non-surgical interventions or surgery.
If your symptoms from degenerative scoliosis aren’t disabling, there are a number of non-surgical treatments you can use that might help.
Over-the-counter pain relievers and/or anti-inflammatory medications
Physical therapy to strengthen and stabilize the spine
Epidural injections or nerve block injections to relieve leg pain
Exercises aimed at strengthening the core muscles of the abdomen and back and improving flexibility
If you can’t get pain relief from non-surgical interventions for degenerative scoliosis, you might need surgery. There are several types of surgery that might help you have a better quality of life. Although, Dr. Taggard says that surgery is rare for adults who have scoliosis, with only about 5% of patients needing it. There are five main types of surgery.
An osteotomy involves extracting entire vertebrae or sections of vertebrae to restructure and align the spine.
Spinal fusion permanently fixes your spine into a straighter position by connecting two or more vertebrae.
This involves installing hardware to fuse segments of the spine and uses metal rods to link the anchors together. This stabilizes the spine and allows it to fuse in the corrected position. Fusion surgery is performed as part of stabilization.
The goals of spinal decompression are to restore spinal balance and alignment and reduce pain and discomfort by relieving pressure on your nerves. This type of surgery removes the roof of the spinal canal and enlarges the spaces where nerve roots leave it.
Vertebral column resection
This surgery removes entire vertebral sections, then realigns the spine. It’s used when an osteotomy and other types of surgery can’t correct the scoliosis.
After talking it over with Dr. Taggard, Wahlenmaier decided that surgery was the right option to help ease her pain and get her active lifestyle back. Dr. Taggard says Wahlenmaier’s decompression surgery went well and she’s doing great.
“My son just got married, and I danced the night way,” said Wahlenmaier. “So, it’s changed my whole life.”
Wahlenmaier is grateful the surgery worked for her and recommends that anyone suffering from chronic back pain see their doctor right away.