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Magnets helping make back braces a thing of the past for some patients

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A magnetic pull on the spine to get things straight. It’s a technique doctors are increasingly using for growing patients.

He shoots, swings and throws. Just like a typical 11-year-old who loves sports.

Cal Sorensen, spine magnet patient: “I can play basketball and golf with it.”

Holly Sorensen, Cal’s mother: “Even with the twisting with golf he can do pretty much everything.”

What he doesn't feel doesn’t hinder Cal Sorensen. But looking at an x-ray of his spine, you’d think otherwise.

Steven Mardjetko, Advocate Children’s Hospital orthopedic surgeon: “This is called a dual rod growth rod construct. We use two rods. You can see four screws that are inserted into the vertebra.”

The rods were surgically placed last August after years in a back brace failed to straighten Cal’s severely curved spine.

Holly Sorensen: “It looked basically like an ‘S,’ and you could see his whole body was shifted over from the center of his torso.”

Dr Mardjetko: “This is Cal’s x-ray just before surgery. His primary curve is 65 degrees.”

As Cal has grown so has the hardware. The rods in his back are magnetic and telescope.

Dr Mardjetko: “We have to put the external magnet close to the internal magnet. We’re stretching the spine between the implants, the fixation points.”

Advocate Children’s Hospital orthopedic surgeon Steven Mardjetko hovers the external magnet motor over Cal’s back, which causes the internal rods to spin and slowly lengthen in pre-programmed increments.

Dr Mardjetko: We’re growing him at the rate of about three millimeters every four to six weeks has been our lengthening schedule for him. So over the next year, we’ll probably do a total of ten lengthenings for a total of three centimeters.”

It’s a technique commonly used for lengthening bones in children with limb deformities. But when it comes to the spine, there are downsides.

Dr Mardjetko: “There are some children’s spinal deformities that can’t be lengthened by this technique. They’re too stiff and the motor can’t do it. That’s a little bit of a safety factor too because you can over distract children too so you have to be very careful about how much force you do apply.”

It's not for every child with scoliosis but so far it’s working for Cal.

Cal Sorensen: “I do feel a little less curvy. I just feel more straight so I feel like I’ taller.”

Holly Sorensen: “We’re just so happy that we don’t have to put braces on anymore. The morning routine is so much easier. He just seems like a happier kid.”

Cal will need to have the rods replaced for longer ones in a couple of years. And a spinal fusion is likely once he’s full grown to make sure his spine remains straight and stable.

More info at:

Advocate Children’s Hospital

Steven M. Mardjetko, M.D. pediatric-orthopedic surgery physician profile