As she entered adolescence, Sam K. knew that her back didn’t quite act the way she thought it should. “When I was standing or walking for too long, it would hurt,” says the 13-year-old. When that happened, she’d “pop” it back into place by crossing her legs and stretching.
Yet Sam and her grandmother, Nicolette, didn’t know the full story until they went to a doctor’s appointment in May 2021. When Sam laid down on the exam table, Nicolette was stunned. “Her spine was very crooked, and her rib cage was protruding,” Nicolette says.
Sam had progressive scoliosis, a worsening curvature of the spine most common in children and adolescents. Doctors typically diagnose scoliosis when the spine is curved at more than 10 degrees. Sam’s curve had reached 52 degrees.
Almost immediately after hearing Sam’s diagnosis, Nicolette started looking for a doctor who could help her granddaughter. An answer popped up right in her inbox.
“I got an email from Atlantic Health System with a video of Jason Lowenstein, MD,” she says. “It talked about a new procedure called tethering and how it helps treat scoliosis. I figured he’d be so busy that we’d never get in to see him. But then I called, and he saw us within a week!”
An innovative approach to correcting scoliosis
Dr. Lowenstein is a board-certified, fellowship-trained spine and scoliosis surgeon and director of the Atlantic Health System Scoliosis and Spinal Deformity Center. He practices at Atlantic Health’s Morristown Medical Center, the only hospital in New Jersey using an FDA-approved device to perform Vertebral Body Tethering (VBT). It’s an alternative to spinal fusion for adolescents with progressive scoliosis whose spines are still growing.
Unlike fusion, which uses metal plates, screws and rods to connect one or more bones in the spine and help them grow together, VBT uses anchors and a flexible cord. The anchors are attached to the outward-curving side of the spine, while the tether is connected to the anchors. “The tether then acts like an internal brace, helping to modulate the growth of the spine and correcting the curvature in a more flexible way than fusion,” Dr. Lowenstein says.
When Sam and Nicolette first met Dr. Lowenstein, they knew they made the right choice. “He was with us for over an hour and stayed extra-long to make sure we understood everything,” Nicolette says.
Dr. Lowenstein gave Sam two options: fusion or VBT. She and Nicolette talked it over with other family members and chose VBT as the best approach.
In August 2021, Dr. Lowenstein performed Sam’s tethering procedure. “She was an ideal candidate for VBT because, in addition to scoliosis, she had a congenital fracture [called spondylolisthesis] in her lower back,” he says. “VBT allowed us to correct her scoliosis without stiffening her spine and potentially putting more stress on her spondylolisthesis.”
Getting back to being a “typical teen”
After spending a week at Morristown Medical Center recovering, Sam returned home. She needed a walker for the first few weeks after surgery as she relearned how to walk. She also wore a back brace for half days for close to five months as her back healed.
The brace came off for good right before Christmas 2021. “As soon as it was off, I felt taller!” Sam says.
By spring 2022, Sam was back to being a normal teenager, enjoying full days at school and attending get-togethers with friends. She hopes to resume playing soccer next school year. “I’d love to try surfing, too!” she says. Best of all, the curvature of her spine is down to 22 degrees. “It takes time, but you gotta trust the process,” she says.
Impressed by the care they received, Sam has already recommended Dr. Lowenstein to a teacher at her school whose niece was diagnosed with scoliosis. “Dr. Lowenstein and everyone at Morristown Medical Center are very special,” Nicolette says. “They made a stressful and scary situation very smooth and easy.”
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