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Hit Crtl P & Watch the Magic Happen: 3D Printing for Scoliosis

Published December 4, 2017
| Written By SpineNation Editorial Staff   | Medically Reviewed by Jerry Nichols, MD

3D printing is changing how we create things. This technology allows people with access to a 3D printer to turn a three-dimensional computer model into real objects like jewelry, decorative art, and even three-dimensional selfies.

But 3D printing also has a number of medical uses. This includes the treatment of scoliosis, an abnormal sideways curving of the spine.

There are several different types of scoliosis. The most common is called adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, which appears in late childhood or adolescence. Scoliosis can also occur later in life due to age-related changes in the spine.

Mild scoliosis does not usually cause pain, or difficulty moving or breathing. But more severe curves of the spine may require treatment. In adolescents, larger curves can become more severe over time without treatment.

Treatments for scoliosis includes body braces that keep the curve from worsening, and surgery to correct the curve and help the spine grow straight. 3D printing is being used for both of these treatments, as well as to create three-dimensional models of a patient’s spine before surgery.

3D-Printed Scoliosis Brace

A scoliosis brace is sometimes used for adolescents who are still growing and have moderate scoliosis. The brace won’t reverse the curve or cure scoliosis, but it can keep the curve from worsening.

Braces are often made of plastic and are contoured to fit the body. They are meant to be worn all day and night—although adolescents can take them off to shower and do certain physical activities. The longer a brace is worn, though, the more effective it is.

Scoliosis braces are often custom fitted to a child’s or teen’s body by an orthotist or a doctor. This process can be time-consuming and may require several adjustments before the fit is completely right.

3D-printed scoliosis braces, such as those developed by UNYQ, offer several advantages, including a better fit. This is accomplished by first scanning an adolescent’s body to create a three-dimensional computer model of their body.

From this, a scoliosis brace can be 3D-printed to match the adolescent’s shape and dimensions exactly. The brace can also be made with a lightweight, but strong, material that is breathable. This provides greater comfort, which makes it easier for children and teens to wear the brace all day long.

UNYQ has also designed a 3D-printed scoliosis brace with built-in sensors. These monitor pressure points to make sure the brace fits properly. They also monitor how long the child or teen wears the brace during the day.

Custom Spine Implants

Adolescents with more severe scoliosis may require surgery. This is needed to prevent the curves from getting worse. The most commonly used surgery for scoliosis is called spinal fusion.

During spinal fusion, a surgeon fuses, or connects, two or more bones of the spine (vertebrae). This is done to provide more stability to that part of the spine. It also reduces the curve in that section.

Spinal surgery involves placing bone or a bone-like material between the vertebrae. This material will eventually fuse to the old bone. Until that happens, the spine needs to be held straight using metal rods, hooks, screws or wires.

Doctors sometimes have to bend the spinal rods to fit them in place along the patient’s spine. 3D printing allows doctors to print implants that are customized to fit the patient’s spine. This can be done before the surgery even begins.

Before surgery, the patient undergoes a CT scan, MRI or a three-dimensional EOS scan. This is used to create a model of their spine. From this, the spinal rods, such as those developed by Medicrea, can be custom 3D-printed to match this model. As a result, patients can recover much faster after surgery.

The EOS scan uses a lower dose of radiation than a CT scan, which reduces the risk to the patient. One study showed that the EOS scan works as well as a CT scan for creating computer models of the spine.

3D-Printed Models of Patient Spines

3D printing is also being used to help surgeons prepare for scoliosis surgeries. Before surgery, a CT, MRI, or EOS scan is used to make a three-dimensional model of a patient’s spine down to the individual vertebrae.

The replicas of the vertebrae are 3D-printed in a plastic material. Silicone is used to make the discs between the bones. When assembled, this provides a real-life model of the patient’s spine.

This allows surgeons to practice their surgical approach and revise their plan to work better with the patient’s spine. It also enables surgeons to find the best placement for surgical implants used to straighten the spine, such as screws, hooks, or rods.

One study found that when surgeons used these models before surgery, the operating time was shorter. There was also less blood loss during surgery and fewer health complications.

These three-dimensional spine models can even be used to train surgeons and educate adolescents and their families about scoliosis and the upcoming surgery.

3D-printing for the treatment of scoliosis is still in its early stages. As 3D-printing technology develops and companies perfect its use for making scoliosis braces or spine implants, the benefits for people with scoliosis will continue to grow.

Updated: January 8, 2020

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Contributors and Experts

Jerry Nichols, MD is board certified in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation with Carilion Clinic.