Magnetic rods help young scoliosis patient avoid surgery

Image 1 of 26

Now 10, Anna Connolly has been a regular at the doctor's office since she was just six, when her mother Tiffany noticed a curve at the top of Anna's spine.

"And you could see, because she was so thin and so small, you could see the outline of her spine on her back," Tiffany Connolly says.

Anna was diagnosed with scoliosis, an S-shaped curve at the top of her spine.

"I was a little nervous, when I found out I had scoliosis," the Atlanta fifth-grader remembers. 'It scared me a bit."

At first, Anna wore a brace to straighten her spine, for 23 hours a day. But, her curve was growing sharper, and so was the pain.

"It was not letting me breathe as well, and I wasn't able to do a lot of things," she says.

That was hard because Anna had always been athletic.

"She had to stop running," her mother says. "She'd been an avid runner with her dad. They'd run a mile or two, even at 6-years old."

Gradually, she says, it got to the point Anna just couldn't breathe. "They would have to walk more. And then it got to the point she didn't want to do them anymore. "

With Anna's curve now approaching 60 degrees at its sharpest point, she needed surgery, and the Connolly's started researching their options. They found pediatric orthopedic surgeon Dr. Michael Schmitz of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. Schmitz surgically implanted two metal rods on each side of Anna's spine to straighten it. As Anna grows, the rods will need to be expanded to make them longer.

Typically, that would require additional spine surgeries.

"They would have to put me asleep every 6 months and go in for an operation every 6 months," Anna Connolly says.

But, on this particular October morning, Anna Connolly is back at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta with her parents, but not for another operation. She's going to have her spinal rods, known as "growing rods," lengthened electromagnetically.

"It's a relief to know that we're not having to check into the hospital," says Tiffany Connolly. "She's not having to be put to sleep. It's 5 minutes, and we're done. I get a little nervous, but once it's over, I don't feel nervous anymore," says Anna Connolly.

Anna's mom talking her through the adjustment, encouraging her to take deep breaths and think about the beach, and her sleepover with friends. Dr. Schmitz applies a strong magnetic field that penetrates through Anna's skin, and turns on small magnetic motors that expand the rods.

"It hurts a bit, but it also tickles at first," says Anna Connolly. "It's a game changer, in that that it limits the amount of obligatory trips to the operating room," says Dr. Schmitz.

Schmitz says the "growing rods" are designed for a small subset of young patients like Anna, with early-onset scoliosis.

"But for each one of these patients, it can make a significant difference," Schmitz says. "Scoliosis, in a young patient, is a potentially life-threatening disease."

Today, Anna Connolly is back to running again, pain free. She's even competed in two Spartan kids races.

"My back doesn't hurt as much," Connolly says. "I can run, ride a bike, it's pretty fun for me."