February 9, 2013

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Scoliosis

Treatment of scoliosis by suspension prior to casting, 1870
from Wiki Commons
Fascinating photos of the discovery of King Richard III's skeleton under a car park in Leicester, England, showed that the king suffered from severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine).  Check out this link: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9846693/Richard-III-skeleton-is-the-king.html

Scoliosis has been known for centuries but what did we know about it in the nineteenth century and how was it treated? Back then there were multiple theories about what caused the spine to curve out of alignment.  They included:
  • Girls were less physically active than boys causing their spines to be weak and grow crooked
  • The furniture used in schoolrooms caused the children to sit at awkward angles
  • Corsets worn by women
  • Unequal leg lengths
  • Muscle weakness on one side of the body
The truth is we didn't know what caused scoliosis back then and we still don't know what causes the most common form today.  Treatments in the 19th century and early 20th century included exercises for strengthening the back muscles, casts and braces and combinations of traction, suspension, bracing and postural corrections.  Today, the treatment consists of braces to prevent further progression in children who are still growing and spinal fusion surgery for those whose bones have completed the growth process.
For references and additional reading see Extras

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