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Kids make a splash in scoliosis swim scheme

Jenny Lee reports on a swimming programme for children with spinal curvature that is helping to build their fitness, self-confidence and to encourage them back to sport

Lisburn sisters Jessica and Hollie Cowdean who both have scoliosis and have benefited from taking part in the Straight2Swimming programme run by City of Belfast Swimming Club

WHILE body image concerns all young people, the debilitating spinal condition scoliosis can having a damaging psychological impact upon it's sufferers.

Back in December 2013 Lisburn sisters Hollie and Jessica Cowdean were coping with their condition – Jessica having to undergo major surgery to have titanium rods and screws inserted into her spine to straighten it and Hollie having a full torso brace fitted. But now just 19 months later, the girls are preparing to scale new heights as they take part in an expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro.

Having been unable to take part in PE over the past few years, Straight2Swimming, the world’s first tailored swim programme for scoliosis, helped the sisters regain the fitness and confidence needed for this monumental challenge, by providing a safe, inclusive space for patients to form friendships and meet others like them.

Hollie, who wears a full torso plastic brace for 23 hours a day, had enjoyed swimming before her diagnosis but became too self-conscious about her body shape to put on a swim suit. "I had to stop doing PE, but Striaght2Swimming has been so brilliant. It's helped us physically and upped our confidence."

The unique swim programme, sponsored by American specialist spine medical device company K2M and run by City of Belfast Swimming Club, has completed it's first season, providing free one-hour weekly specialist swim tuition and therapy to 30 children with scoliosis from across Northern Ireland.

One in every 200 under-18s in Northern Ireland are diagnosed with scoliosis, with approximately 50 operations to correct spinal curvature in young people performed here each year.

Their are various types of scoliosis. Some are present at birth, while for many it begins just before puberty, during the growth spurts that occur during this time. Depending on the size of the curvature, not all children with scoliosis require treatment. In some of these cases it is better to actively treat the scoliosis with a cast or brace to reduce the chance of problems in adult life; surgery is required when the curve is so severe that it is certain to continue to get worse.

Besides the fact that swimming is good for general strengthening of the back muscles, it is also good for breathing function, which is likely to be affected among the individuals with scoliosis, due to the spine causing the ribs to press on the heart and lungs.

"Swimming builds up their core strength and increases lung capacity. The water provides resistance, which can work your muscles and improve endurance and flexibility," explains Eimear Brown, the Straight2Swimming programme director and one of the swimming instructors.

The club, which provides three classes dependent upon ability, is aimed at young people aged five to 18 from all over Northern Ireland and next year it plans to expand to the Republic. Some of the older children are already showing great progress and Eimear believes they will join the main City of Belfast club and progress to competition level.

She believes Straight2Swimming is particularly beneficial pre-and post surgery, where the physical rehabilitation provided by the NHS is very limited or non-existant, as well as helping build confidence and self-esteem.

This is certainly true for Hollie and Jessica who, together with two other Striaght2Swim members, are heading on a medically assisted climb of the 20,000ft Mount Kilimanjaro in mid-August. Inspired by a talk given by Dublin based Dr Padraig Sheera, founder of Kilimanjaro Achievers, who visited Straight2Swimming, the girls will be accompanied by a team of five doctors who will monitor their health throughout.

In preparation for the challenge they have climbed the Mournes and Cave Hill as part of their training. Hollie hopes the climb will help raise awareness of scoliosis and her advice to other young people who have just been diagnosed is not to be afraid or disheartened. "They aren't alone. Having scoliosis doesn't mean you can't get on with life or enjoy sport. Look at me – I'm climbing a mountain."

Straight2Swimming has also been invaluable to the parents of those with scoliosis, as Suzanne Humphreys from Donaghcloney, Co Down, explains. "It gave us a chance to sit and speak with other parents in the same situation and get advice from those whose children have been through surgery. They also arranged valuable information nights where surgeons, psychiatrist and dieticians came and gave talks and gave us information we wouldn't have had access to if we hadn't came to Straight2Swimming."

"[Our daughter] Jessica is a shy wee girl and was very nervous about getting into the pool. She shed a few tears but after her first session she got out of the pool asking 'Mummy can we go back next week'?"

Nine year-old Jessica was only diagnosed with scoliosis last summer when her mum was putting a new sun dress on her and noticed her rib-cage was more rounded. Jessica's curvature was quite pronounced and has progressed quite quickly and she needs surgery.

"Awareness of scoliosis needs to be raised. I would encourage other parents to regularly get their children to bend over and touch their toes and check their spines. There are many causes, including growth spurts and early intervention is crucial," adds Suzanne.

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