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Treatment developed for female spinal condition

February 25, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
It's a puzzling disease that can cause unexplained pain and fatigue. Many young women are being misdiagnosed, but one doctor thinks he may have the answer.Kathleen Zuelch is always full speed ahead. She's a busy television producer with a passion for competitive kayak and canoe racing.

But a year ago, she noticed her feet started to drag and she tripped a lot. The condition puzzled her and her doctors.

"Well, I was fearful I had multiple sclerosis," said Zuelch.

Soon debilitating back pain just took over.

"It basically felt like somebody was taking their hands and basically just crushing the vertebrae," said Zuelch.

She was already being seen at the D.I.S.C. Sports and Spine Center for a neck injury, but something told Dr. Robert Bray to look at more than just her bones.

He had seen this mysterious condition before mainly in women 20 to 40 years old.

"Well, it's a new condition that we've identified and it has to do with very tiny blood vessels," said Bray.

Bray decided he needed to study this condition. He invented a screening procedure which keyed in on abnormally growing blood vessels on the spine.

"Just a regular MRI will miss this. It has to be done with a special dye technique," said Bray.

In Zuelch's case, the test revealed an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, right on her mid-spine.

"And it starts as a single vessel connecting abnormally an artery to a vein, and then it expands into almost like a spider web around the spine and it grows," said Bray.

Why something like this affects young women is unknown. Bray suspects hormones may be involved.

"That's certainly a possibility since estrogens are in birth control pills and we're looking at young women around that age," said Bray. "Most of the ones we've found have been on birth control pills."

If it weren't for her neck injury, Zuelch says she never would have seen a doctor for her symptoms, and experts say if an AVM on the spine goes untreated, a patient could end up paralyzed.

Dr. Bray performed microsurgery, carefully severing and sealing each of the blood-vessel connections, making the AVM disappear.

"The patients recover from the surgery quite quickly," said Bray.

There's not much left of Zuelch's scar. She's undergone months of rehabilitation and she's stronger than ever.

"I feel better than new, actually, if that's possible," said Zuelch.