What is the historical background of idiopathic scoliosis?

Updated: Dec 02, 2020
  • Author: Charles T Mehlman, DO, MPH; Chief Editor: Jeffrey A Goldstein, MD  more...
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That scoliosis remains incompletely understood despite a collective medical experience that approaches 4000 years is a sad commentary on the learning curve of medical practitioners. Nevertheless, the history of the recognition and treatment of scoliosis is rich with important lessons for the modern practitioner.

Ancient Hindu religious literature (circa 3500-1800 BCE) describes the treatment of spinal deformity rather clearly. The story is told of a woman who was "deformed in three places" and how Lord Krishna straightened her back. [11] This was accomplished by pressing down on her feet and pulling up on her chin. The orthopedic trappings of the story are unmistakable, including excellent immediate posttreatment results and no long-term follow-up.

Hippocrates (circa 400 BCE) stated, "there are many varieties of curvature of the spine even in persons who are in good health; for it takes place from natural conformation and from habit." He also stated that "lateral curvatures also occur, the proximate cause of which is the attitudes in which these patients lie." [12] The postural and muscular theory of scoliosis thus stated has persisted for thousands of years and remains firmly embraced by some.

Hippocratic scoliosis treatment methods focused primarily on spinal manipulation and traction. [13] He used an elaborate traction table called the scamnum. Medical practitioners used slight variations of the Hippocratic scamnum well into the 1500s. Another treatment approach that Hippocrates discussed involved attempting to diminish spinal deformity with a method called succussion. This involved strapping the patient (often upside down) to a ladder, which was then hoisted into the air and dropped from a height. Hippocrates thought that this method was occasionally useful, but it was largely performed by charlatans to impress the public. [14]

Ambroise Pare, the "most celebrated surgeon of the Renaissance," [15] is recognized as the first physician to treat scoliosis with a brace. He also recognized that once a patient with scoliosis had reached maturity, bracing was not useful. Pare's orthosis consisted of a metal corset (fashioned in a village smithy setting) with many holes in it to help diminish its significant weight. The record also makes it quite clear that Pare espoused the postural theory of scoliosis.

Nicholas Andry was a French pediatrician who hated the brutal barber surgeons of his day. [16] . At the age of 83 (a year before his death) he wrote a short book entitled Orthopaedia. Thus, in 1741 this name combined the root words for "straight" (orthos) and "child" (pais) to create the name still used for the broad musculoskeletal field, orthopedics.

Andry believed that scoliosis was caused by asymmetric muscle tightness and, thus, helped foster the French belief in "convulsive muscular contraction" as the cause of spinal deformity. [14] Andry stated, "It is well worth while to remark that the crookedness of the spine does not always proceed from a fault of the spine itself, but is sometimes owing to muscles of the forepart of the body being too short, whereby the spine is rendered crooked, just in the same manner as a bow is made more crooked by tying its cord tighter." [17] Andry used rest, suspension, postural approaches, and padded corsets in his treatment of scoliosis.

Jacques Mathieu Delpech was a successful and skilled surgeon, yet he focused a great deal of his attention on nonsurgical approaches to orthopedic problems. The highlight of this focus was his orthopedic institute at Montpellier, in the south of France. This facility included elaborate gardens, a heated winter gymnasium, and an outdoor gymnasium for the treatment of various musculoskeletal problems.

For the treatment of scoliosis, Delpech devised graded exercises for strengthening muscles of the trunk in the belief that the deformity was due to a weak axial musculature. This belief was almost certainly due to the influence of Andry. Delpech also used stretching and traction techniques but did not believe in braces. His patients usually stayed for 1 or 2 years at the institute, and they would wear uniforms while they performed their exercises. Similar elaborate efforts to treat scoliosis still exist in the physical therapy outpatient setting. [18] Delpech's life and that of his institute came to an abrupt end in 1832 when a disgruntled patient shot him to death as he was riding back to Montpellier in an open carriage. [12]

An important event of the 1800s was the advent of surgical treatment of scoliosis by the French orthopedic surgeon Jules Guerin. He was very enthusiastic about subcutaneous tenotomy and myotomy and first reported their use in his scoliosis patients in 1839. When he later published the results of treatment of 1349 patients with this technique, tremendous controversy was ignited. [12] Guerin's harshest critic was Joseph Malgaigne, who described Guerin's work as "some orthopedic illusion." [12] This led to one of the most famous orthopedic lawsuits in history: Guerin versus Malgaigne. This defamation trial ended in Malgaigne's favor and helped to establish an important precedent for open criticism of scientific papers.

Another important tool in the treatment of scoliosis was the plaster body jacket (ie, body cast). The American orthopedic surgeon Lewis Sayre popularized its use in the mid-1800s. Sayre's technique involved a large tripod that allowed the patient to be suspended while the corrective plaster cast was applied. Sayre was said to be "a brusque, forceful and therefore controversial personality" but also "an eloquent speaker" who toured internationally demonstrating his casting techniques. [14] He also used a "jury mast" extension from some of his casts in order to provide constant head traction—a clear predecessor to halo traction.

The early 1900s saw what was arguably the most important advance in scoliosis treatment in more than 3000 years: posterior spinal fusion. Russell Hibbs first performed his "fusion operation" for tuberculous spinal deformity in 1911, but by 1914 he also was applying his technique to patients with scoliosis. [19] The Hibbs approach focused on achieving maximum deformity correction via a variety of plaster jackets before surgery. Hibbs's 1924 description of his own technique is eloquent:

The dissection is carried farther and farther forward upon each vertebra in turn, until the spinous processes, the posterior surfaces of the laminae, and the base of the transverse processes are bared...[and] with a bone gouge, a substantial piece of bone is elevated from the adjacent edges of each lamina, of half its thickness and of half its width. The free end of the piece from above is turned down to make contact with the lamina below, and the free end of the piece from the lamina below is turned up to make contact with the lamina above...Each spinous process is then partially divided with bone forceps and broken down, forcing the tip to come into contact with the bare bone of the vertebra below.

In the postoperative period, Hibbs typically allowed 2 weeks of bedrest for wound healing, followed by a final traction plaster jacket. The patient would continue to be confined to bed while wearing the corrective cast for another 6 weeks. Following this, the patient would wear a removable brace during the day for an additional 6-12 months. It was clear to Hibbs that with his technique, he could at least partially correct and, more important than this, prevent progression of the curves he was treating.

By 1941, such spinal fusion operations for idiopathic scoliosis were common enough that Shands (of the Alfred I duPont Institute) and his fellow researchers could assess more than 400 cases. [20] Hibbs-type fusion procedures were performed in all cases, but most surgeons (60%) used supplemental bone graft (often from the tibia). An approximately 25% final curve correction was achieved, and an overall 28% pseudarthrosis rate was noted. [20]

It would be another 20 years before Paul Harrington would introduce the spinal instrumentation system that would further refine scoliosis surgery. [21] Although Harrington's original concept was instrumentation without fusion, persons such as John Moe would convince him of the value of spinal fusion in concert with Harrington rods. [22]

Further refinement in surgical technique and instrumentation has led to the greater than 50% correction and single-digit pseudarthrosis rates to which contemporary orthopedists have become accustomed.


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