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Healthy Bones, Healthy Kids

October 27, 2015

When he was eight years old, Matthew Bergamo began complaining of back and leg pains. “At first we thought it was just growing pains or that he was just making excuses to get out of doing things he didn’t want to do,” says his dad, Joe. “But Matthew is a kid who would rather be outside doing something active rather than playing a video game, so when he started spending more time sitting, we knew something wasn’t right.”

Joe and his wife Elizabeth expressed their concerns to their family physician at Matthew’s next physical, and they were referred to a nearby hospital for x-rays and a consultation with an orthopedic specialist. After looking at the images, the doctor diagnosed Matthew with a Pars defect of the lumbar spine. The condition affects a part of a vertebra called the pars interarticularis. A defect in the pars is a break in this portion of bone that leads to a separation of the upper, front portion of the vertebra from its lower, back portion.

“The doctor said there wasn’t any need to do anything about it immediately, and that we should come back in a year for a follow-up,” says Joe. “That didn’t sound like a good idea to us because Matthew was in pain.”

Instead, Matthew’s parents took him to Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. The hospital’s Division of Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine cares for more than 30,000 children each year with bone, joint, muscle, ligament, tendon and nerve disorders, and is the top-ranked hospital in Illinois for pediatric orthopedic care, according to U.S.News & World Report.

At the hospital, Matthew underwent x-rays and was examined by John F. Sarwark, MD, head of the division. He confirmed the original diagnosis but told Joe and Elizabeth that while many adults wouldn’t require treatment, children are more active and their bones more flexible, so without treatment, the condition could worsen and possibly require surgery. Matthew would need to wear a rigid back brace for 22 hours a day for eight weeks to relieve his pain and limit movement of his spine to resolve his symptoms.

Almost immediately after getting his rigid brace, cast by the specialists in Lurie Children’s Orthotics and Prosthetics Department, Matthew reported feeling less pain. His dad says that the brace even helped him sleep better because he wasn’t constantly moving around in bed to find a comfortable position. While his condition limited some of the things he could do, for the most part, Matthew was able to continue his active lifestyle.

Today, a year and a half after beginning treatment, 10-year-old Matthew wears his brace for only eight hours a day and continues to see Dr. Sarwark and his team every few months for follow-ups.

“Now we rarely hear a complaint from Matthew regarding any back or leg pain,” says Elizabeth. “His back has stabilized, and is becoming much stronger.”

After their initial experience with a non-pediatric orthopedic specialist, Joe says they appreciate the Lurie Children’s difference, where everyone on the staff is a pediatric specialist with special training and knowledge in treating kids.

Elizabeth says she and Joe sometimes wonder what would have happened if they had not sought a second opinion at Lurie Children’s.

“I can't imagine what Matthew's condition would have been like if we had done nothing,” she says. “How much more pain he would have been in, or how much more damage it could have caused. Thanks to Dr. Sarwark and his team, today Matthew is as active and healthy as any other ten-year-old boy.”

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