When treated in a timely and effective manner, scoliosis -- or curvature of the spine -- can be almost invisible. Shailene Woodley, 17, for instance who stars as the pregnant Amy Juergens in ABC Family’s hit The Secret Life of the American Teenager, has spent much of her life in the spotlight. The California native broke into the business at age 5 and later played young Jordan in Crossing Jordan and Kaitlin Cooper in the first season of The O.C. What her fans may not know is that she just wrapped up two years of wearing a chest-to-hips plastic brace -- ever since she was diagnosed with scoliosis the summer she was 15.
“We were getting ready to go swimming and I was in a bikini. ... My best friend was like, ‘Shai, your spine is weird,’” Woodley says. With scoliosis, the spine can look like an “S” or a “C” from behind. Other indicators include uneven shoulders, a prominent shoulder blade, or an uneven waist.
As with other subjective experiences, such as love, fear, or anger, there's no way to objectively measure pain. We asked Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, chief of the Pain Management Division and associate professor of anesthesia at Stanford University School of Medicine, to explain the unpleasant sensation we all feel in different ways.
Her mom took her to the doctor for a diagnosis. “I laugh under pressure,” says Woodley, whose spine had a 38-degree curvature (if it had been more than 45 degrees, she would have been a candidate for surgery). “So I was OK. It wasn’t until the fourth week of wearing a brace that I said, ‘Whoa, this is a bummer.’” But in the end, the treatment was successful, and she took the brace off for good in December.
Causes of scoliosis
Scoliosis affects roughly 2% of the population. Most cases are minor enough to require no treatment. Woodley’s scoliosis, called idiopathic, is the most common type, for which there is no known cause -- though it runs in families and researchers are trying to pinpoint the origins. About 20% of scoliosis cases are associated with birth defects, illness, or traumatic injury. And no one knows why, but girls are more likely to get the condition.
In moderate cases, such as Woodley’s, bracing to keep the curvature from getting worse is the treatment; she wore the brace 18 hours a day. She took it off to go swimming or out with friends and when she was filming. Despite the inconvenience and discomfort -- “It’s like braces in your mouth. You go in and get it tightened and it hurts for a while” -- Woodley knew that left untreated, scoliosis can lead to serious medical troubles, including back pain, deformity, fatigue, and, in severe cases, problems with heart and lung function.
Her advice for those newly diagnosed with scoliosis? “There’s no cure, but the only thing they sort of know works is the brace. So follow instructions, don’t be afraid, and watch out for it.”
SOURCES: American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, “What is Scoliosis?”, Fact
Sheet, June 2007. WebMD Osteoarthritis Guide: “Scoliosis.” Scoliosis Research
Society, “What is Scoliosis?” Mayo Clinic, Children’s Health: “Scoliosis.”