When my wife was around 27-28, her scoliosis had started to give her a lot of pain. Her curves are 45/55 degrees which is quite severe. She wore a boston brace as a teenager which stabilized the curves and eliminated pain until around 22-23. However, the pains returned after that point and we were looking for methods to remove or reduce them.
After studying surgery and learning a lot about the sideeffects, we decided to postpone surgery for as long as possible. At some stage we came in contact with a man in Belgium who claimed he could help reduce the pain. He was a nurse at a hospital in Brussels and as a hobby worked with teenagers with scoliosis and assisted with their treatment. In Belgium the so-called conservative treatment is used a lot. In this regard “conservative” refers to the fact that the treatment attempts to avoid or postpone surgery (progressive treatment) for as long as possible. Also, the conservative scoliosis treatment often involves plaster casting and traction.
However, the treatment is primarily used only on children and teens who are still growing. There seems to be some documented results that the method works on adolescents here. However, it was generally believed that the method would not work on adults such as my wife at 27-28.
In any case we were young and naive. My wife was in a lot of pain and willing to try anything. The Belgian nurse was very convincing and believed that the method could in fact help reduce my wife’s curves. So we drove off to Brussels with our hopes up.
When we arrived, my wife was put in traction for several hours per day for a couple of days. If you are unfamiliar with a traction table, I have included a picture of one below.
Picture of traction table. Click the picture to see it in use.
It is quite painful and extremely boring to lie in traction for hours at a time. However, it was a necessary part of the treatment to soften and stretch the spine as much as possible before the plaster cast.
After a couple days like this, my wife was washed and put on an undershirt that would stay on her permanently for the next six weeks. Then she was put on her table and a doctor started to build up the plaster cast around her back. The plaster cast is created while in traction such that it forces the spine to be as straight as possible for the next many weeks.
When she was finished, we went to our room and she tried to get used to the plaster cast. A small error had been made that caused her a lot of pain such that the doctor had to come at night and remove a part of the cast with a sharp knife.
On the next day we went back home and my wife had to live with the cast for six weeks. This was a terrible time for her. She could not shower with the cast so it became increasingly difficult to stay clean. She developed rashes on the skin under the cast and it was itching a lot in places that she couldn’t scratch. I built a traction device around her bed such that she could still be in traction for a couple hours per day. Sleeping in the cast was very difficult as she could only lie on her back and not sides or stomach.
But the six weeks eventually went by and we drove back to Brussels. The plaster cast was cut open with an electrical saw and removed. My wife was free at last!
Now came the exciting results – had all the suffering and trouble been worth it? In fact the spine seemed to be straightened out significantly to begin with and we were quite pleased. However, after several months out of the cast, the spine did – not too surprisingly – fall back in the old curves.
It seems obvious today to us – as it did not back in those days – that an adult spine cannot be permanently straightened by a temporary stretching treatment, at least when this treatment is not accompanied with any exercises. In fact it seems that the back gets weaker during the plaster treatment. The muscles in the back are used less as they do not have to support the back and indeed it is impossible to carry out any strengthening exercises while in the cast.
So out of the cast, the adult back may for a couple of days be less crooked but longer term may be worse off since muscles have atrophied while not used and become less able to support the back.
So we clearly do not recommend this treatment for adults. It may work for adolescents as their spines are still growing – similar to a normal bracing treatment. However, a modern brace is much much more convenient and comfortable than a plaster cast which frankly seems like something out of the middle ages.