By Kathy Walsh

(CBS4) – An 11-year-old gymnast from Littleton is already standing straighter just two days after having experimental surgery to correct her twisted spine. Sophia Clem is the first person with scoliosis to undergo vertebral body tethering (VBT) in Colorado.

(credit: CBS)

CBS4 Health Specialist Kathy Walsh watched Sophia stand and take baby steps in her room at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children. It wasn’t easy for her to get around, but Sophia is focused on the future.

“I’ll have less pain in my back. I feel that I will be able to run more easily,” she said.

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At age 7, Sophia was diagnosed with scoliosis, curvature of the spine. Over the years, she wore a brace, tried chiropractic and physical therapy. She competed in gymnastics as her twisted spine got worse. Then the Clems found VBT.

“A technique that is surgical, but does not cause fusion of the bones,” explained Sophia’s pediatric orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Jaren Riley.

(credit: CBS)

Through four small incisions on Sophia’s side, Riley anchored screws to the vertebra on the curved side of her spine. He then attached a flexible cord to each screw and tightened the cord, like braces for the spine.

“It tethers one side of the spine, allows the other to keep growing until we get a straighter result,” Riley said.

Dr. Riley at RMHC is the first to do VBT in Colorado.

“She was measuring in the mid 40s prior to surgery and she’s already measuring in the low 20s now,” he said, showing the improvement of Sophia’s curvature on her X-rays.

Sophia is his first patient here.

“Something told me that Dr. Riley would be able to do it successfully,” said the 6th grader.

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Riley calls Sophia incredibly brave and a pioneer.

The surgery is not FDA approved.

“It’s such a promising technique, I think it’s worth that leap of faith to start doing it here in Colorado,” said Riley.

There are risks with VBT, among them injury to the heart and lungs, infection, nerve damage and paralysis. Because it is relatively new, long term issues are unknown.

VBT is not for everyone. It’s recommended you check with your doctor.

Kathy Walsh

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