YOUR HEALTH: Creating a spine before actually doing spinal surgery

Surgeons make 3-D models of patients’ spines before surgery.

PHOENIX, Arizona – An innovation team in Phoenix is 3-D printing the spines of patients who have severe scoliosis so there are no surprises on operation day.

Megan Johansen was diagnosed with scoliosis at age nine.

When her fourth child turned three years old, Megan's spine collapsed to a 90-degree bend.

"I couldn't breathe and I was starting to have really bad heart palpitations where it just felt like it was going to be beating out my chest or it would just, like, seize up."

She knew she finally needed surgery.

Surgeons at Barrow Neurological Institute use CT and MRI scans to make 3-D models of patients' spines before surgery.

"We know how to print these spines in such a way that we'll get the same tissue quality in the spine and the same biomechanical performance of the spine model as we would expect to in the patient," said Dr. Michael Bohl, founder and director of the Barrow Neurological Institute.

It costs $50 to $70 to print a 3-D model of a spine.

That really helps with complicated cases, like Megan's.

"The models not only look like the patient's spine, but also bend and move like the patient's spine," said Dr. Bohl.

YOUR HEALTH: Creating a spine before actually doing spinal surgery

Her pedicle bones on the inside curves are small for screws to straighten her spine.

After working with the model, surgeons changed their plan and didn't put them there.

"It gives us an opportunity to rehearse the case, to practice the plan that we have going into it and say, 'Is this going to work or not? Do we need to revise our plan?'," explained Dr. Bohl.

Megan had been told her surgery would be 12 hours long and her spine only corrected to about 50-degrees.

"When I woke up from surgery five hours later, I was only 13-degrees and five inches taller."

She still has some pain, but she's working again and even hiking with her family.

"It was a miracle."

Besides helping surgeons before operations, the models are used regularly in surgeon training and education for patients.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.