The long awaited... scoliosis q&a. SO excited to finally be opening up and sharing more details about my scoliosis journey. I am constantly taken aback and humbled by the amount of messages I recieve daily about this particular topic. The fact that so many of you feel comfortable reaching out to me makes all of 'this' worth it. Whether you have scoliosis, are going through treatment, have/had to get spinal fusion, or are just curious (lol), I'm so happy you're here!
A few months back I did a 'questions' poll on Instagram where y'all sent me hundredsss of questions about scoliosis, spinal fusion, why I had surgery, cheer, etc., so these questions are coming straight from what y'all wanted to know. If I somehow missed your question or you think of another question while reading through this, please, just comment it below!
*** disclaimer : The information is provided for general informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional health advice. Accordingly, before taking actions based upon such information, consult with the appropriate medical and healthcare professional(s).
Q: “Do you wish you got your back fixed earlier? Any advice on types of doctors to see?”
A: I wouldn’t change a thing about the timing of my personal journey. Getting spinal fusion surgery at 19 years old allowed me to fulfill not just my All-Star Cheerleading career, but also my dream of cheering collegiately for a year. This is rather atypical, though, as most are diagnosed much younger than I was, and, in turn, have surgery earlier. I was officially diagnosed with scoliosis when I was 14, which is late in the game in terms of beginning a treatment plan. Symptoms started when I was around 12 years old. Until I went to TSRHC I was told the unevenness of my back was due to overdevelopment of muscle, something those doctors/specialists accredited to being a flyer and excessively pulling positions on one leg. In terms of seeking treatment, I would seek mentorship from your parents, a trusted mentor, and/or your primary physician.
Q: “Did your rib cage shape/uneven hips go back to normal after surgery or is it still uneven?”
A: My rib cage was severely uneven. My bases used to call it ‘the hump’ – lol. On top of the curvature of my spine it was also twisting, something my team of doctors accredit to the elite level of training and a-typical flexibility I practiced as a flyer for years. Post-surgery, I am ECSTATIC to say, I am as even as I can get. In terms of “go back to normal” … I’m not even sure what normal is. My normal was 57°+ of curvature and years of a progressing curve in spite of a preventative bracing treatment plan. Now my normal is two titanium rods and 17 titanium screws. My ribs are more even now, but, you can still feel a difference in size if you feel both my rib cages.
Q: “What are some symptoms you started noticing internally or physically with scoliosis?”
A: Tight clothing such as sports bras looked slanted on my back. I favored leaning to the left when standing, making my right shoulder higher than the left (probably because this was the direction of my curve).
Q: “I'm supposed to be getting spinal fusion surgery too, but I'm wicked nervous! Do you have any tips?”
A: Trust your doctor(s). Trust the process. Take your recovery not just one day at a time, but one step at a time. WALK! When you’re uncomfortable or feeling pain post-surgery, walk it out. I promise it helps! You might think staying still and laying down is what will make it feel better, but I promise getting up and walking around the house for two minutes will loosen everything up and get blood pumpin’ back there! Oh, and order a wedge pillow. Such a life saver.
Q: “I have scoliosis and want surgery but I work out a lot. Would I still be able to do that?”
A: Girlllllll. You want surgery or you have to get surgery, lol? If your doctor hasn’t communicated you’re a candidate for surgery and you have a treatment plan, I would stick with that until told otherwise. But, yes, you can still workout. Working out was very therapeutic for me post-surgery and got me through a time when I was overwhelmed with uncertainty. Your doctor will/should inform you about when you’re released to work out and ease back into everything post-op..
Q: “How long did it take you to recover from surgery? What medicine did you use for pain?”
A: I would say it took me about three to four weeks to 'recover' from spinal fusion. I was on a three-and-a-half-hour flight to Cape Cod exactly four and a half weeks post-op, lol. In terms of feeling 100%, it took me approximately two-three months. The stiffness and soreness subside greatly around the four week mark after surgery. Activity level is gradually increased until you get back into your normal daily routines.
In terms of medicine, I was the second of my surgeon’s patients to stop taking all narcotic prescription medication after being released from the hospital. My surgery took place on June 15th and I was released to go home on June 18th because my in-hospital early recovery went so well. Once I was home, I alternated between hospital doses of Ibuprofen and Extra Strength Tylenol. I strongly believe that this significantly sped up my recovery time as I wasn’t passed out/sleeping 24/7 and I was able to feel my body healing, therefore easily recognizing the difference between pain and discomfort. This also eliminated the other negative side effects of narcotic pain medicine like feeling foggy/groggy and constipation, which can really complicate your recovery. My appetite increased daily and I was able to eat well and properly fuel my body. I highly suggest stopping narcotics ASAP post surgery with your doctors knowledge and approval.
Q: “Was your back like that naturally or did cheer/doing a needle cause scoliosis?”
A: I was diagnosed with Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis (AIS) when I was 14. Adolescent means that a patient is not yet skeletally mature, meaning that they are still growing. Idiopathic means that the condition has no identifiable cause- so I can't definitively say what caused my scoliosis. There are three types of scoliosis : 1) congenital: curvature caused by a defect at birth 2) idiopathic: no definite cause of curvature, tends to run in families (girls are eight times more likely than boys to develop the condition) 3) neuromuscular: curvature associated with disorders of the nerve or muscular systems.
Q: “I also got spinal fusion and was a cheerleader. If you could cheer again, would you?”
I for sure could not train competitively at the elite level which I did due to lack of flexibility in my thoracic and lumbar regions. Jumps and basic stunts, sure… but not much more than that.
Q: “Hardest thing about spinal fusion and how you got through it? I'm having mine soon.”
A: Everyone is different. I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better surgical and recovery process. For me, the biggest challenge was mental. Having faith and coming to peace with the timing in my life, as well as courageously entering the new direction that I was being called toward. Up until my surgery, I identified greatly with being a cheerleader and being in uniform, and even more specifically, the flyer that I was. Performing and doing what I loved was my passion…and I had to find a new one. I am so blessed by and grateful for my journey cheering, but I am glad that chapter of my life closed when it did. In addition to my surgery and recovery, I had a lot going on personally during that phase of my life. Post-surgery, I had to find myself again which required some reinvention of my self-image. I’m not trying to send the message that surgery made me lose myself, because it was actually quite the opposite. I believe it’s the best decision that I could’ve ever made for myself. The first step towards giving myself the healthiest version of the rest of my life. I just had to go through the stages of grief to fully find my fire again.
Q: “Did you have to stop doing All-Star Cheer after your back surgery?”
A: My All-Star Cheerleading career ended in 2015. My surgery was on June 15, 2016. So, my All-Star career was over and I was cheering collegiately before the decision to get surgery was made. I was always totally against surgery, until one day I wasn't. My doctor explained to me that he wasn’t concerned about Peyton in her twenties or even thirties, but forties, fifties, sixties, etc., were his concern. My curve would never stop increasing, most likely leading to interference with other organs and physical deformity. I still vividly remember the appointment when I was told that my case got to the point that made me an official candidate for surgery. My doctor thoroughly explained that he wanted me to live a full, healthy life, able to do anything that I wanted to, and he didn’t see that as a viable option without surgery. For me, the thought of losing all ability to do my sport was out of the question, but my surgeon was patient with me and respected my journey as an athlete. He said that I could hold off until my cheer career was over since I wasn't in much pain and it wasn't affecting my overall health. He gave me the freedom to control the timing of my decision which I believe led me to making the right decision for me.
Q: “Why did you have to get scoliosis surgery?”
A: After a Boston bracing treatment plan didn’t prevent the curve from progressing, I became a candidate for surgery. My curve surpassed 50° after my growth plates had closed, meaning my curvature would’ve continued to progress 1-2 degrees every year for the rest of my life.
Q: “Did you have any pain associated with your curvatures?” “How was the pain?” “Do you think cheerleading increased your back pain?” “Does your back still hurt from your surgery? If so, do you do preventative exercises to help it?”
A: Pre-surgery : I did not experience much back pain associated with my curvature, or in general, something my doctors accredit to my core strength from cheer. From time to time I had some pain, usually after long practices or two-a-days. My understanding is that scoliosis does not usually hurt or cause curve related pain. If you’re feeling pain, I suggest scheduling an appointment with your doctor for evaluation. Post-surgery : Pain now is minimal. Slight discomfort from time-to-time.
Q: “Was it scary going through the whole process?”
A: Absolutely. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t.
Q: “How did you cope with the fact that you wouldn’t be able to do as much as you could before the surgery?”
A: GREAT QUESTION. I was at peace with the fact that I was closing the chapter to a wild 14-year journey as a cheerleader and making a decision for the betterment of my overall lifestyle and health in the long run. Longevity wise, surgery was without a doubt the best course of action for me. I will say it is weird, though, now, looking back at videos and photos of myself then. I used to be able to bend in half, literally, and now I’m fused with the hopes that the new bone placed during surgery eventually bridges the gaps between the vertebrae and makes my spine fuse together...
Q: “What was the degree of your curvature before and after surgery?”
A: See x-rays below. Left, after surgery. Right, before surgery. My curve started off as a ‘C’ curve but developed to an ‘S’ curve overtime. The day before surgery, my curve measured 27°, 56°, 36°. Right after surgery, my curve measured 16°, 13°, 11°.
Q: “Any advice on how to be confident in your scar?”
A: Just own it! It’s a part of you and your unique, one-of-a-kind surgery… wear it and wear it proudly!
Q: “How bad was your curvature?”
A: Before surgery, my curvature was a ‘S’ curve reading 27° 56° 36°. On forward bend, I had a right thoracic fullness and left lumbar prominence. I always had full range of motion of my spine. As a grew I subtly became more shifted over to the right, leading to a slight clinical deformity.
Q: “What treatment approach did you take?”
A: Upon my first visit to TSRHC in July 2012, I was placed into a Boston brace. I wore the brace for 11-16 hours each day until July 2015.
Q: “Have you found yourself able to continue with normal physical activities since your surgery? Or do you have any limitations?”
A: The only limitations I’ve noticed thus far are arching my back and sit ups. It’s physically impossible for me to do a sit up now, kind of weird. Also, a limitation specifically related to me would be how flexible I was before (i.e. body positions).
Q: “As a cheer mom, I see a lot of flyers who have some degree of scoliosis. Did you see you see the same thing? If so, do you think training should change? Do you think parents should be aware, and make sure the training does not favor one side?”
A: Great question. My journey is a bit unique in the fact that I was so flexible from a young age. I actually wasn’t allowed to pull positions to my fullest ability for my first few years of flying because they “didn’t match everyone else.” So, to answer your question, no – growing up I didn’t know many, if any, flyers with scoliosis. However, towards the end of my career I can think of three in my gym that actually had scoliosis. Two with curvature in other areas than mine and one with curvature around the same area. None were as severe as mine, though. It wasn’t a-typical to know a flyer with back pain, though. I do get a lot of messages now about flyers saying they have scoliosis asking for advice or tips. I think this is due to the change in industry standard for flyers (i.e. training for extreme flexibility from such a young age). I personally 100% think parents should be aware of the hyper-focus on one side of the back that comes with being a flyer. In terms of my opinion on current training procedures; I am not in the gym anymore so I can’t speak for how this is being addressed. I do recommend stretching the other side religiously on your own time if it’s being neglected at the gym. Unlike other sports that require the same level of flexibility (dancing, gymnastics, ice skating, yoga, etc.), all-star cheerleading only requires flyers to pull positions on one side of their body. So, to compensate for the hyper-focus on just one side in the gym, I suggest devoting 5-10 minutes every day strictly to the other side to try and maintain evenness and symmetry. I also suggest practicing yoga a few times weekly, as every pose is done on both sides of the body to promote true symmetry.
Q: “Is the metal still in your back?”
A: Yes! & it will be forever. *cue I am Titanium by David Guetta*
Q: “Why did you have surgery and would you do it again?”
A: I’m assuming this is asking why did I end up having to get surgery? I had spinal fusion to correct the curvature of my spine. My curvature had passed 50° before my growth plates closed, meaning the likelihood of it continuing to progress was very high. Sure enough, after my growth plates closed my curve continued to increase and would’ve kept progressing through the years (1-2 degrees each year to be exact). When your curvature doesn’t hold steady after your growth plates close many risks then become associated with not opting for surgery. The greatest of which being it can start to affect your major organs, such as your heart and lungs. It can also cause deformity, which was beginning to happen for me. The main goal of scoliosis surgery is to stop the curvature of the spine from getting any worse. The second goal is to correct deformity and, in turn, correct between 50 to 80 percent of the pre-existing curve. I would make the decision to have the surgery again. 10000%. No regrets. I pray I never have to have a second surgery, though…
Q: “How do you have confidence about your scar? I have anxiety about it.”
A: Girlfriend! Just own it. I don’t see it, so it truly doesn’t even phase me. If others are being negative to you about it… bye Felicia!
My Scoliosis Journey Timeline
July 2012 – First visit to TSRHC, diagnosed with Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis, started bracing treatment, curvature 39°, right thoracic prominence
November 2012 – curvature 41°, right thoracic prominence, mild left lower lumbar prominence
June 2013 – curvature 41°
January 2014 – curvature 48°, right thoracic prominence, left lower lumbar fullness, right trunk shift
August 2014 – right thoracic curvature of 53° and left thoracolumbar curvature of 33°
despite brace wear curve continues to increase, magnitude of curve now in realm in which eligible for surgery
March 2015 – Stopped bracing treatment, high left thoracic curvature of 31°, right thoracic curvature of 53°, left lumbar curvature of 32°
May 2016 – Decided to schedule spinal fusion, high left thoracic curvature of 31°, right thoracic curvature of 56°, left lumbar curvature of 36°, subtly more shifted over to the right/presence of clinical deformity
June 15, 2016 – Spinal Fusion Surgery