Earlier this week, Channel 4 aired a documentary called Save My Child. It focused on two young people with lifelong health conditions and their families' efforts to raise the funds for private treatment.
One of the children featured was Mia, a 15-year-old girl with scoliosis. Here's a clip from the programme:
Mia's curved spine, along with the scoliosis brace that she had to wear for 23 hours a day, meant that she was in near-constant pain. At the start of Save My Child, we see Mia lying awake at night and struggling with everyday tasks like tying her shoelaces.
Frustrated with the long waiting lists for spinal fusion surgery - and fearing that Mia's condition would only get worse with time - her family started researching alternatives. Eventually, they decided to travel to Turkey so that Mia could undergo vertebral body tethering (VBT) surgery.
The Channel 4 programme primarily focused on how Mia's family managed to raise tens of thousands of pounds to pay for private surgery. What it didn't do was take a critical look at the VBT procedure itself and how effective it actually is.
Is VBT a good alternative to spinal fusion surgery?
First of all, it's important to note that VBT is a rather controversial topic here in the UK. It was the subject of much discussion at the recent British Scoliosis Society conference in Cardiff - many British families go abroad for VBT, with Germany and Turkey the most popular destinations, but in many cases there are no formal standards in place for this procedure. And if complications occur back home, the NHS must then pick up the cost of fixing an operation that was paid for privately in a different country!
Fortunately, the outcome for Mia was a positive one ("I'm a lot happier now," she told Channel 4), but here at the Scoliosis SOS Clinic, we've met a number of scoliosis patients who weren't so lucky. One family came to see us after their daughter had undergone the VBT procedure in Turkey - they were concerned that she didn't look any different, and in the end they signed her up for a ScolioGold treatment course, an option they had previously passed up in favour of the VBT route.
Potential complications of VBT
If you need another reason to think twice before going abroad for VBT surgery, we have met multiple scoliosis patients who ended up suffering from pleurisy after the procedure. This is a sharp pain in the chest that occurs when you take a deep breath.
Still other patients found that the tethering had been done on the wrong side of the spine, making their scoliosis worse and creating nerve complications.
Finally, it should be noted that the death rate for VBT is 3%. This is significantly higher than spinal fusion surgery.
A safer alternative to spinal fusion
While vertebral body tethering may become a more viable option in the future, there simply isn't enough evidence of its effectiveness just yet (this is the main reason why VBT isn't currently available on the NHS).
The Scoliosis SOS Clinic's physiotherapy-based scoliosis treatment courses offer a non-invasive, low-risk alternative to scoliosis surgery. We have helped patients of all ages to manage their severe spinal curves and live happier, more active lives. On many occasions, our treatment programme has reduced the angle of the patient's curvature to a point where they're no longer a candidate for surgery at all!
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