Idiopathic Scoliosis Treatment in Minnesota

When it comes to Idiopathic Scoliosis Treatment in Minnesota, there are a lot of opinions on how to best approach the matter. I’m Dr. James Pietrek with Prior Lake Spinal Care and I want to share a story with you about a Scoliosis case, which started about 30 years ago.  

When this boy was in 8th grade, he lined up at the swimming pool to get his back checked by the school nurse.  It was found that he had Scoliosis, so he was sent home with a note to give to his parents, so they could be aware of it.

Just before freshman football season, he was up north waterskiing and after he went around the lake a couple times and got back into the boat, he’d felt a sharp pain he’d never felt before on the right side of his mid-back, between the shoulder blades.  He thought that maybe it was because he was cramping up from being wet and now being in the wind - or maybe because the waves were whitecapping and it was a choppy ride, as he’d felt the rope repeatedly yanking on his arms.   

When he got to dry land and warmed up, he experimented by doing a couple football moves in the backyard of the cabin.  Every time he moved, it was as if a knife was being driven deeper in between his shoulder blades.  He thought maybe he’d pulled a muscle and that in the morning it would feel better.  He tried the same moves the following morning but, again, he felt the knife-like pain each time.  

Football season was painful to say the least.  He told his parents that the problem wasn’t going away, so they decided it was best to take him to the doctor because it might have something to do with the Scoliosis diagnosis from the middle school nurse.  

He was referred to Twin Cities Spine Center and when the doctor showed him the X-ray, he was shocked at how crooked his spine was.  They told him to not change anything, keep playing sports and come back to get re-X-rayed every six months until he stopped growing.  They said that the key was to keep him under 40 degrees of curvature in the mid-back to the right - exactly where the pain was coming from.  

Not only was it affecting his athletic performance, it had also begun affecting his concentration in the classroom.  He was always shifty, and couldn’t sit in the same position for more than a couple minutes without needing to shift and try to re-focus because of the discomfort in his spine.

Shortly after high school, he took the advice of a friend and his dad, and went to see a chiropractor.  The adjustments DID help with his mid-back pain, and he decided to focus his undergraduate studies on chiropractic.

In the first trimester of chiropractic college, again he was shocked when he saw his full-spine X-ray.  It was much worse than 40 degrees.  It was 46!  He was shocked because The Twin Cities Spine Center had said that he was pretty much done growing and that the curves hadn’t accelerated so he should be “in the clear”.  The chiropractor concurred that, although his spine’s curves weren’t a whole lot better after his course of care, they were at least not getting any worse.  

How do I have such a vivid memory of these details?  Because I’m talking about me!  As you can see, I’m skinnier on the left and bigger on the right, and you can see my nice bump when I bend over.

Not only was I shocked, I was scared because I remembered that anything beyond 40 degrees may mean that I’d need to have Harrington Rods surgically placed in my spine. 

There are a lot of theories on how to treat Scoliosis: surgery, orthotic bracing, physical therapy, Yoga, stretching, and chiropractic to name a few.  I was surprised there were so many different ways to adjust and treat the spine once I got to chiropractic college - I figured there had to be SOMETHING that could help me - plus NOW I was starting to have lower back pain near my hip, where my spine curves to the left.  

So I had different chiropractors working on me on campus, special tables that stretched me out, electrical muscle stimulation, as well as chiropractors who’d been in private practice for decades but nothing was really working. Not only was I shocked and scared, I felt shame and embarrassment because here I am, signing up for all these student loans gearing up for a chiropractic degree and career, and nobody can help stop my curves from getting worse.

Then, I broke my wrist, as I was holding a “football” for someone to kick.  He slipped and kicked my wrist, and I heard a “snap” and developed a cyst in one of my wrist bones that needed to be surgically repaired.

Little did I know that this would lead me to now doing the work that I’ve been doing the past 20 years.  Even after the surgery, my wrist just wasn’t the same.  I knew I couldn’t do the fast style of adjusting any more and so I’d have to change my ideas on how I would practice, and find a methodology that would be easy on my wrist.  

When I was researching different chiropractic techniques, I came across this study that said there was a link between upper brainstem damage in rabbits and their tendency toward developing Scoliosis.

This caught my attention because it suggested that Scoliosis was some sort of an adaptation or compensation for an UPSTREAM problem.  This presented a completely new way of looking at the spine for me - not only MY spine - but EVERYONE’S spine.  

I distinctly remember being in my basement room of this house on 82nd Street and Penn Avenue - right next to the chiropractic college.  I walked over to my spine model, bordering on tears and thought, “What in the world is wrong with my spinal c—-.?”  I could not say “column”.  

I then recalled one of our instructors saying that the normal side curves in the neck, mid-back and lower back actually give strength to the spine and that, without these side-curves our spines would be much weaker.  I remember thinking that not only is MY SPINE not a column - NOBODY’S spine is a column.

Since the experts seemed to disagree about the best way to treat Idiopathic Scoliosis and because there are so many different chiropractic techniques, I knew I needed a fresh way of viewing the spine and that I needed to start thinking like an engineer - both because I was a student that wanted to learn AND out of desperation because my main curve was now in the upper 40’s and I had two other ones approaching the mid-30 degree range.  I really had nothing to lose.

I eventually realized that the spine is what is known as a “tensegral” structure or tension-based structure, sort of like a suspensory bridge or like the sail on a sailboat - and that it’s actually the farthest thing from a “column”.  Columns don’t need to bend down and tie their shoes, carry luggage or put toddlers into car seats.  If they could, they’d always be toppling over like a stack of blocks.  

I then realized that in order for my curves to stop worsening (I hadn’t even thought of anything improving at that point), I had to be resilient.  

When I say “resilience”, you’re probably thinking of the first definition, which is the ability to overcome adversity. I'm actually talking about the second definition, which means the ability to come back toward normal after being bent, stretched or compressed.  And, if you think about it, that’s exactly what Idiopathic Scoliosis is.  

There’s a primary curve or bend, then we stretch back toward vertical and, if it continues to accelerate and starts to compress, you get the rotational or buckling element.  Notice how each of the vertebrae are interlocked.  It becomes a problem with the alignment of every single vertebra - not just the few that are contributing to the measurement of that curve - which DO NOT individually misalign like these Jenga blocks.  

From an engineering perspective, if there’s a structural problem with the sail on a sailboat, it’s not just going to bend and then capsize.  No, it’s going to bend then rotate and then compress in upon itself, and succumb to gravity.  THEN it will capsize.   

Anything that gets compressed gets compressed from the ends, and any rope that unravels always unravels from the ends - so, to me, it made sense that in the case of those rabbits, maybe there could be a link between their Scoliosis and the contracture of certain muscle groups in these rabbits’ spines - they’re not even walking around upright against gravity - maybe there was some neurological dysfunction that would explain this.  

Here’s the black and white facts when it comes to treating Scoliosis:

1.  The spine is not a column (it’s a tension-based structure);

2.  Resilience is your ability to come back toward normal after being bent, stretched or compressed; and

3.  Muscles do not have a mind of their own.

It’s true, the brain tells the muscles to contract and relax - and to STAY contracted in a (seemingly) unbalanced way with Idiopathic Scoliosis.

The question, then, is “WHAT CAUSES THE IMBALANCE OF THE MUSCLES”?  Are the unbalanced muscle tensions indeed the cause(s) of the curve(s) or are they effects - an adaptation for something else going on the body?

In my case and for numerous other Scoliosis sufferers I’ve been able to help in private practice for the past 20 years, I can say that the spinal misalignments were NOT due to random, isolated, coincidental and non-related problems with 24 Idiopathic or “unknown” causes.  It turns out, our crooked spines were compensating for a structural imbalance in the top of the spine at the level of the brainstem.  

Just like rabbits, the side-most part of our brainstem is in charge of transmitting postural tone information to the paraspinal (postural) muscles.  This is similar to how a string puppet moves or how a guitar gets tuned - from the top.

Now, you might be thinking that “I went to a chiropractor, she didn’t say I had an upper neck problem” or “he said I HAD a neck problem but that he fixed it”, or you might even be thinking - “I would never go to a chiropractor because I don’t want to have my neck cracked!”

I understand all of these concerns, and that’s why we don’t perform any high velocity neck adjustments.  Our intention is to locate the correct pathway, tap into your own spine’s resilience, and unlock the resistance that is keeping your spine locked in a stressed position.

Now, unless you’ve had the type of X-ray series like we perform here at Prior Lake Spinal Care, it probably wasn’t very specific.  I’ll use myself as an example again.  

The C1 bone in the top of the neck is called “Atlas”.  Just like in Greek mythology, “Atlas” was the titan that held the world on his shoulders. So your world is your head, your brain, and your skull - which is just like a 13-pound bowling ball balanced on this little 2 ounce ring-shaped bone which moves more than any other segment in your spine because, unlike the other 23 vertebrae, it DOESN’T rest on a disc and it DOESN’T interlock with the joints above and below.

As for my own atlas you can easily feel my atlas bone sticking out more on the left.  So, when I went to my first chiropractor that does the same type of work I do now, I was surprised when he showed me on my X-rays that my Atlas was actually slipped UP and to the right AND rotated forward. He then showed me the skull joint was actually higher up on that right side, which is what actually allowed for so much of a side slip of my Atlas.  

Remember, when the top of the spine slips out, it doesn’t do so like a Jenga block straight out to the side, it actually does so in an arcing way, UP the joints of the skull in this sort of way.  

Well, to make a long story short, I’m glad I put all of my eggs into this C1 basket because not only could I feel a mechanical difference in how my entire spine was moving after just one adjustment, my spine is also about 20% straighter now versus then - well over half a lifetime later.    

The night after my first adjustment, I bent down to “buzz” the back of my head with the clipper (I had some hair back then).  When I bent over, I was amazed that my hips weren’t shooting out to the left side any more.  In fact, in practice, I often test the motion of the sacroiliac joint before and after the adjustment.  More often than not, if there was a restriction in this joint before the adjustment, it unlocks and moves just as well as the other side immediately after the spinal adjustment ... .even though we’re working on the other end of the spine.  This is based on a study done back in the 90’s which also caught my attention because it was in the same book as the one with study on Scoliosis and the rabbits.  

Not only are my curves better, I’m ½” taller now than when I was in 2000. I still have the knife-like pain when I move in certain ways, but it doesn’t limit me in my daily tasks like it did 24 years ago.   It’s been over half of a lifetime for me from 2000 to 2024 and at this rate, my spine will be practically straight by 2070! 😄

All that to say, even if you’ve been to a chiropractor before, if you haven’t had X-rays from all three dimensions - from the side, from the top, and a tailored-for-you frontal view to see both the shapes of the joint surfaces and whether there’s any arcing slippage, then you really are missing out on ensuring the safest, most specific, and most beneficial chiropractic spinal adjustment on the planet in my humble opinion.

Remember, all chiropractic techniques work by tapping into the person’s inborn resilience.  Our ability to do this for you is directly tied to the changes you can expect to feel and see since our procedure begins and ends with the understanding that your spine is a tension-based machine.

Not only is this Physiology or Spinal Anatomy 101, this is based on a walk-through experience of my own spinal health challenges.  It’s an understatement that I made a wise decision to think my own problem through with a fresh perspective and a clear understanding about what the black and white X-ray is telling us.  Not by asking “what is this?” or “how bad is it?” since these questions lead to circular reasoning and shades of grey.  But instead by asking “what caused this curve…that curve…and that curve?”   

This form of spinal care is my life’s work and Scoliosis sufferers in San Diego and now in the Twin Cities have been benefiting from our unique form of spinal adjusting and spinal care.  

You’ve heard some of my stories, and now I’d like to hear yours.    

When it comes to Idiopathic Scoliosis, there are a lot of treatment options out there, and the best one depends on the individual.  Some people unfortunately need surgery.  For everyone else, in my opinion while you have time and especially if you know yours or your son’s or daughter’s is worsening, you want to do the most conservative thing first.  

And remember, muscles do not have a mind of their own.  If they’re tight, they’re tight for a reason, and trying to loosen them could actually make the problem worse - especially IF those tight muscles are adapting to or compensating for a hidden cause.  And one of the best things about this treatment is that we can usually tell within a couple weeks if this is going to be something that will be effective for potentially improving or stopping your curves.  No risky surgery and no months of suspenseful watching and waiting.  

If you’d like to receive a free in-person consultation or if you’d prefer to consult over the phone, then call or text the office phone line at 952-444-6030 and let me know your best day and time frame and I will do my best to match one.  Don’t forget to have your list of questions, NOTHING is off limits.

The earlier the intervention the better, but even if you’re older, you still have to deal with gravity and the first step is to find out how resilient your spine truly is.
Thank you for reading Scoliosis in Black and White.  I’m Dr. James Pietrek with Prior Lake Spinal Care.

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