Expert Blog

Research at Sonoran Spine: Why we elevate academic pursuits in our practice

When I was training as an orthopedic surgery resident, I took care of a young teenage girl who was born with misshaped vertebra. As she grew, her spine began to curve (congenital scoliosis). She was cute, chatty, smart, curious, and she had a severe spinal deformity. Orthopedic knowledge at the time taught that correcting a congenitally curved spine like this girl had should never be done. The appropriate surgery was to fuse the deformity in its place, locking in the curvature forever. Any attempt at corrective surgery meant certain paralysis.

 We at Sonoran Spine are deeply involved in spine research that is part of treating spinal disease, back pain, and neck pain. Some have asked us why we do research. We are a non-university center; a private practice. Isn't taking care of patients enough? The answer to that question is multifaceted, but really comes down to a basic principle we have always held: Research makes us better doctors. The quest helps us understand how we can do things better and prove what works. Teaching others is a part of our spine center's DNA.

Since founding Sonoran Spine in 1998 and the Sonoran Research and Education Foundation in 1999, we have tracked how each patient has responded to our treatment. Some of our studies have been funded by industry as a part of gaining FDA approval for some new device. Some have been collaborative efforts with colleagues and friends at major universities (UCLA, UCSF, U of Montreal, Washington U). Some are conducted with the Orthopedic surgery residents we teach. The vast majority of our research has been self- funded, and done for the satisfaction of contributing to the knowledge of our specialty.

The Sonoran Spine is uniquely suited to address many problems and answer questions. We see a tremendous number of patients with spinal curvature, with work injuries, with slipped vertebra, disc herniations, and other conditions and have studied new techniques to improve treatment in these areas. Phoenix is also a center for golf, and we have studied how golfers and other athletes recover from back problems. Through our research, we have invented new spinal devices and receive offers to be involved in new invention opportunities almost constantly. Research has placed us in an elite inner circle among our friends and colleagues who are similarly researchers and educators. Our academic work has been presented at the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, Scoliosis Research Society, North American Spine Society, International Meeting on Advanced Spine Techniques, Eurospine, International Society for the Advancement of Spine Surgery, Spine Across the Sea, Western Orthopedic Association, and others. 

We will always be engaged in contributing to our specialty and our patients. We owe our very best to them. We do research because we can, because we are good at it, and because we know our efforts make a difference in guiding care in the spine community. And that girl with the congenital scoliosis I mentioned in the beginning, now we would correct that curve, improve her deformity, and we do it safely and routinely, thanks to spine research.