A PT with scoliosis helps others with the condition
By April Gerard, PT
A Defining Moment Feature, published in PT in Motion Magazine, April 2020
From a pretty early age I wanted to be a physical therapist. Two experiences with Pts determined my future career.
At 13 I qualified for the Junior Nationals in Alaska in alpine ski racing. When I underwent my first sports physical I learned that I had rather severe scoliosis. I worried this would mean I’d have to wear a brace, have my back fused, or both, which would end my ski racing career. Instead, I went to a PT, who taught me exercises specific to my condition that I completed religiously throught my teens.
I went to another PT when I was recovering from a meniscus tear and ACL repair. He helped me fully recover. I not only returned to ski racing, but I excelled. I received a full scholarship to Denver University in alpine skiing, achieved NCAA All-American status (top 5), and at my peak was ranked 13th nationally in slalom skiing by the International Ski Federation. However, my third and fourth knee surgeries during my second year in college forced me to retire from competitive sports.
I’ve had a very exciting and enjoyable physical therapy career for 37 years. One highlight was when I served as fill-in PT and athletic trainer for U.S. Women’s World Cup speed and technical skiers for six years. I worked with many great skiers, including Picabo Street and Lindsey Vonn, helping them recover from injuries while they were training and racing in Europe and New Zealand. It was quite an honor to treat these high level athletes!
I also was the PT for eight years for the Minnesota Ballet. Those hard-working athletic dancers had many overuse injuries and greatly appreciated my knowledge, skills, and healing hands.
For the past five years, I’ve specialized in physical therapy for patients of all ages who have scoliosis and kyphosis, which is another condition involving spinal deformity. It’s while doing this work that I’ve experienced the true defining moments of my physical therapy career.
As I noted earlier, with the help of exercises taught to me by a PT I was able to avoid wearing a back brace. During the course of my physical therapy career, however, I increasingly wondered if there was some way to better improve the lives of people with spine curvature – including me. I discovered the Schroth Method.
Developed in the 1920s in Germany by Katharina Schroth, a schoolteacher whose own scoliosis as a teenager had been unsuccessfully treated with braces, the Schroth Method is a nonsurgical option that uses exercises customized to each patient to return the curved spine to a more natural position. The goal is to de-rotate, elongate, and stabilize the spine through physical therapy that focuses on restoring muscular symmetry and postural alignment, breathing into the concave side of the body, and teaching patients to be acutely aware of their posture.
I learned that a PT in Stevens Point, Wisconsin – about a four hour drive from where I practice in Duluth, Minnesota – had traveled to Spain to learn this Method. I went to see her as a patient. After a great deal of work together, I was standing taller and significantly straighter. I was convinced!
I then became Schroth certified – first completing an intensive nine-day basic course, followed by an advanced sic-day course. I currently am the only PT north of the Twin Cities in Minnesota to have this credential.
The result is that patients travel up to five hours from neighboring states to see me. I also encourage other Pts in the area to seek Schroth certification. I plan to expose students in the DPT program at the College of St. Scholastica to it, as well.
Young patients and their parents show up at our clinic with little hope for anything but bracing and surgery in their future. They soon find out differently, however.
In my adult patients – some of them in their 90s – breathing techniques have led to better posture, less tension within and crowding of their organs, and increased energy.
It’s easy for me to establish rapport with patients because I can say, “I have scoliosis, too, and these exercises really helped me. I understand where you hurt and why, and I can help you change it.” After having heard for so long that there was nothing to be done about their scoliosis or kyphosis other than bracing or surgery, people are understandably excited to be presented with a viable treatment option. That’s why I still get excited with every new individual I see.
The first patient I treated with the Schroth Method was a teenager who had been scheduled for surgery in a month. Three years later, she is physically stronger and stands taller and straighter than she did when we first met. Treatment has corrected her spinal curvature by 10 degrees. The physician who’d been scheduled to perform her surgery was amazed by her transformation. My former patient is active and happy. She participates in soccer, dance and track.
Treating scoliosis and kyphosis patients includes determining the specific curve or curves to be addressed, tailoring and teaching patient-specific exercises, and using verbal and tactile cueing. Another key component is issuing each patient a booklet of photos of that individual doing his or her exercises correctly.
Each time I work with a scoliosis or kyphosis patient, I challenge my brain by analyzing how to best correct the 3D kinetic chain – from the feet up through the legs, into the pelvis and trunk, and especially in the thoracic and lumbar regions, up to the shoulders and neck, and then to head alignment. The process is very rewarding!
Treating scoliosis and kyphosis patients is my passion. It can be challenging, but it’s rewarding. Physical therapist management of scoliosis has improved my own life, fore sure, but witnessing the positive impact it has had on others has provided me with tremendous satisfaction.