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In Kids & Family

The Milwaukee Brace was developed in Milwaukee in 1946 and used worldwide.

"Milwaukee Brace" mends scoliosis for 60 years


Many of us read about the Milwaukee Brace in Judy Blume's novel "Deenie," saw it portrayed in "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion" and "Sixteen Candles" (who can forget Joan Cusack trying to drink from a bubbler while wearing the restrictive headgear?) and endured the dreaded "scoliosis test" in elementary school.

But it seems the Milwaukee Brace was more "in fashion" a couple of decades ago, so we tracked down Dr. Stephen Robbins, an orthopedic surgeon with the Milwaukee Spinal Specialists, and asked him if the Milwaukee Brace is still used today and why it's named after our city. (Hmmm ... Doesn't "Brew City Brace" have a better ring to it?)

"The Milwaukee brace is definitely used less today than it was. It works well with certain conditions, but you have to find the right type of patient and the right type of curve," says Robbins.

Today, the brace is used for a particular kind of scoliosis called thoracic scoliosis and for a condition called Scheuermann's Disease. It is also used in young children with certain congenital spine deformities.

"Years ago, if a kid had a curvature of the spine, they were put in the (Milwaukee) brace," says Robbins. "But we've research more, have more information about the natural history of the condition now, and the Milwaukee Brace is not always our first choice."

Drs. Walter Blount and Albert Schmidt at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Milwaukee's Children's Hospital developed the Milwaukee Brace in 1946. For decades, the Milwaukee Brace was the golden standard in the conservative treatment of scoliosis worldwide.

The brace consists of a pelvic circle, throat mold, and various bars, straps and pressure pads that work together to hold a curvature and prevent it from worsening. Unfortunately, to be effective the brace has to be worn around the clock and usually during adolescence.

Karen Johnson grew up on the North Side and wore a Milwaukeee Brace from the age of 12 to 15.

"It was rough," she says. "I remember going to a dance at my junior high and nobody asked me to dance."

Robbins says, partly because of the cosmetic hardships on kids who wear the brace, orthopedics are more inclined to observe a child with borderline scoliosis then to fit them for a brace immediately. Plus, other braces that are softer and easier to hide beneath clothing have been developed to make the experience less traumatic. However, if other treatments are ruled out, the Milwaukee Brace is very effective.

"When 'Sixteen Candles' first came out I was totally offended by the girl in the brace, but I saw the movie recently and I laughed so hard I cried," says Johnson.

Talkbacks

AbilityNow | Sept. 14, 2011 at 6:05 a.m. (report)

I have proved a tight tendon causes Scoliosis. In the MAJOR improvements I was able to attain with my son. When Matt was first diagnosed, a Cobb angle of 60 degrees was established. After a year of treatment, therapy 3 to 4 times a week/every other day. And 20 hours daily in a brace, which had my son standing crocked and walking so crocked he drug one leg. Then I discovered and started stretching a tight tendon. Now Matt walks wonderfully well and runs with perfect form. Please read on my site, to find how simple it is to remove the tension. www.scoliosisprevention.us

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taterb4ft9 | Oct. 16, 2010 at 10:29 a.m. (report)

I was born with Scoliosis, one of my legs was 3/4" shorter than the other and they had to do a radical new surgery in 1971 at UVA to correct the differential and relieve stress on my internal organs. They removed nearly 5 inches from my back and put a bone fusion just above my ciatic nerve to push my shorter leg down. I was left with a 12.5" scar up the middle of my spine from my tailbone to just below my shoulder blades. Its hard enough to go through your teenage years without having to endur the humilition of wearing a medieval contraption. I was lucky that I only wore mine 23/7 from age 4 to 14 but I can finally appreciate why. Had I not gone through that ordeal, I would either have been in a wheel chair permanently or dead. Couple that with the fact that I only grew to 4'9" tall and I have flaming red hair, you can imagine the alienation. I didn't stand out in a crown, I stood under it.... But the stigma wearing the brace caused rode inside me until I met my husband 9 years ago. I didn't realize that I carried that brace with me subconciously throughout my life. I still even buy my clothes atleast 1 size larger because I don't like anything tight even through I only way 105. My husband finally convinced me that the brace may have confined me, it didn't define me. As much of a trauma as it was all consuming, I am pretty lucky to be alive and able to walk upright and smile without anyone else being the wiser except for me.

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kypho | July 18, 2010 at 8:06 p.m. (report)

I was just fitted for a milwaukee brace in december 2009.I am 54 and wear it for pain management and to help keep my spine from curving any further then it already has.I have what they call post trumatic kyphosis and a double lateral curve. and have a great deal of pain. both curves were a result of a fall from a scafolding that I was working on when it collapsed.although it took many years for all of this to unfold I was totally unaware of it until I started having pain and noticed that my posture was looking very poor.there doesn't seem to be much they can do for it now.Just try to keep things stable.I have read so many horror stories about growing up with a milwaukee brace and I can only imagine what so many young people had to endure. and I know that they have come a long way over the years.as a teen I'm sure it would have been very traumatic for me.But now I see it as a savior. it keeps the pain at bay and the curves in check.when I don't have the brace on it's very painful. when I'm in the brace there is no pain. Yes it is a very difficult device to get used to. and it does put a limit on the things that I can do. But for me I welcome it over the pain any day.Surgery is out of the question as I have heard so many horror stories that I just won't take that chance. At least I can still take this off when I want to. you can't do that with surgery. there's no going back if it doesn't work out. Any way thats my story. I thought I would try to show a different view of the device that so many young people disliked so much.

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cocoamomma | June 24, 2010 at 2:17 p.m. (report)

I remember the day I was casted for a Milwaukee Brace. I was afraid the guy was going to cut me with the saw when the casted had set and was time to take it off. I wore a Milwaukee Brace from like 1980-1982, I was teased horribly because at that time no one understood why I had to wear it all they knew was I was an easy target. It got to the point that I would not wear it to school, I would try sleeping in it, but then it got to the point where I could not take it any more and just stopped wearing it all together. I threw it in my closet and finally threw it away. I remember it poked holes in my clothes, plastic came down across my hips I looked like a freak, walked like a freak, could not sit comfortably on anything, could hardly chew food. A metal rod went down the front of the chest which was close to the body, you stuck your arms through the front of it then you had to push it together with these closures at the back of the neck the screw it in. It had straps across the middle of the back that had to be fastened and straps across the hips that fastened. My chin and this ledge were it could be rested. A complete torture chamber. Now that I have gotten older I haven't really had many back pain problems only during labor of my children. My mother let me make my own choice of not wearing it, I guess she felt my pain and was ok with me not wearing it after a while. I wasn't throwing money away, because the welfare paid for it. I sometimes think because welfare did pay for it they gave me the ugliest and cheapest brace.

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marbarks | June 12, 2010 at 11:35 a.m. (report)

I wore a Milwaukee brace for 2 years through junior high 23/7. I had a moderate to severe S curve. I grew up in New Orleans so it was hot and uncomfortable but it helped my back to worsen. The fashion in the last 60's was mini skirts and I was wearing tent dresses. I came through it relatively unscathed. There were those who were rude, adults who made comments as we would walk through the mall and say, "Oh, she would be better off dead." I would have to stop my petite, proper mother from decking them. I learned from this time that people came in all forms and some were not accepting or were ignorant of what was happening. I went to a chiropractor for 3 years and then had scoliosis surgery at 16. I wore the Milwaukee brace for another year-able to roll out only for a sponge bath each day. The second brace had a plastic base instead of leather. I learned to sit in the tub and bath and then let my mother dry off the brace well once I rolled out of it. I am extremely grateful for that brace. I did not have to wear a body cast. I could go back to school my senior year. I worked at a Foto-Mat store. Yes, I looked like Frankestein but most people's response to me depended on my outlook which was positive. This brace was all that was available at the time and it helped me. Although it chewed through clothes, chafed my skin and wore away my hair at the back of my head. The hair grew back. My skin recovered and I wear normal clothes now. So the time in the brace was well worth it.

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