Health

Friday 29 August 2014

The therapy to keep ahead of the spinal curve

When his son was diagnosed with scoliosis, Mark Travers found a little known German spine therapy and brought it to Ireland

Jake Travers (5) with his physiotherapist Sarah McShane
Jake Travers (5) with his physiotherapist Sarah McShane
Jake Travers (5) with his physiotherapist Sarah McShane and his mother Sarah Feehan (right, standing). Photo: Tom Conachy

When Mark Travers went to his local physiotherapy clinic to find help for his toddler son, he could never have guessed that his visit would be the catalyst for the introduction to Ireland of a new treatment which would benefit patients throughout the country.

The story begins when his son Jake was 15 months old and Mark's wife Sarah Feehan noticed something different about his spine – and, she recalls now, that his ribs seemed to be out of alignment.

Five or six months later, after a series of comprehensive tests and medical consultations, Jake was diagnosed with scoliosis, which is curvature of the spine, and, in August 2010, was fitted with a body cast.

"Jake would fall a lot," Sarah recalls. "His balance was very poor and his core muscles were weak, but he always seemed to take it in his stride," she recalls.

Mark started to research scoliosis and investigated the different treatments used for the condition.

About 18 months ago, Mark came across information about Schroth Therapy, a treatment for scoliosis that is very popular in Europe, but was at that stage virtually unknown in Ireland.

Mark visited the Louth Physiotherapy clinic in Dundalk, where the family lives, to see if staff there practised Schroth Therapy – they didn't, but it emerged, they were very open to learning about it.

Schroth Therapy focuses on educating patients about their posture and how to correct it – and then teaches them how to apply their postural changes to functional activities.

It works on the basis that scoliosis always involves asymmetrical muscle groups in the back and elsewhere – which in normal bodies are more evenly symmetrical.

Patients learn exercises which stretch tightened areas and strengthen weakened areas of the body.

The Schroth Method also focuses on educating patients how to breathe more effectively and properly ventilate the lungs.

Sarah McShane (27), a chartered physiotherapist at the clinic, had not heard about Schroth Therapy, but was intrigued by what Mark had to say about it, and immediately started to research it.

"It's very popular all over Europe. There was a lot of research on how this therapy worked and the benefits seemed to be very good," she recalls, adding that it has been used in mainland Europe for more than 40 years.

With the support of her boss, Sarah decided to train in Schroth Therapy and in July 2012, travelled to the tiny German village of Bad Soberheim, where the Schroth Therapy Centre of Excellence was located:

"Schroth therapy looks at the 'asymmetrics' in the body. A curve in the spine will affect the body in different ways," she explains.

"You might have an elevation of a shoulder or hip for example so that one shoulder/hip is higher than the other.

"As part of Schroth Therapy we also identify muscles affected by the curvature of the spine – we look at the back and see what is not in alignment.

"We identify associated problems – for example, a shoulder or a hip and we guide the client into creating a better posture so that these asymmetries are minimised.

"It's about educating the client in how to attain a better posture, thus putting less pressure on certain muscles and on the spine itself."

This is done, she says, through a series of exercises which are very specific to individual clients, depending she explains, on the type of scoliosis they have and the way their condition is affecting them.

"We are effectively identifying ways the scoliosis is affecting the patient, and then teaching them how to correct their posture to improve their spinal alignment."

The exercises, she explains, can be as simple as standing in front of a mirror and putting your arms in a special position so that the shoulder blade is properly positioned.

This exercise also encourages patients to move their ribs into correct alignment and helps teach correct weight-bearing posture:

"Every exercise has multiple components and will have different functions for different parts of the body, so it is very important that they develop the exercises carefully.

"We also teach them how to breathe – Schroth Therapy believes that scoliosis affects the patient's lung capacity so we teach the client how to breath by filling their lungs to maximum capacity which makes exercise easier for them and is also believed to play a role in improving the alignment of the spine.

In February 2013 Jake began to receive a combination of physiotherapy and Schroth Therapy – he now does 20-30 minute exercise sessions four times a week – and the results are significant, says his mother: "It's very much about posture and breathing.

"A year after he started the therapy, his balance has improved, it's really good and he doesn't fall any more.

"His lung capacity is better – he used to get a lot of chest infections, but now his breathing has improved and he doesn't seem to be as vulnerable to the chest infections.

"We're very happy – he will have to be operated on in the future, but the therapy has really improved his quality of life."

"I think this is a very practical therapy – it makes a lot of sense to me," says Sarah.

"The therapy has definitely improve Jake's exercise tolerance and his posture has improved significantly. He wears a cast but the therapy has helped target other areas of the body such as his tummy muscles and head and neck alignment and his shoulder posture."

Jake's not the only one who has benefited from the introduction of Schroth Therapy to the Louth Physiotherapy Clinic.

Says McShane: "Twenty months on, we are up and running successfully, seeing new clients on a weekly basis and managing clients' scoliosis.

"At present we are still the only clinic in the country offering this service and have clients from Kerry to Donegal coming to utilise the service.

"We're getting great results from it – one of our clients was facing surgery when she started with us.

"She has completed six months in treatment and now no longer requires surgery because the severity of the curvature of her spine has reduced."

As a result of the improved posture brought about by the exercises, she explains, clients find their muscles are not as tight and their joints are less stiff – and they're experiencing less pain.

"We also find that clients are able to tolerate more exercise once they start the therapy. The therapy is improving muscle function and helping them breathe better."

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