Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Medical antiquity

Out-of-fashion treatment for “intoeing”
A display of medical “artifacts” at the Hattiesburg Clinic resurrected memories and some anger last week when my mother and I were on our way to an appointment with one of her doctors.

When our youngest son Jeremy was just a few months old, I realized his feet had started turning in, extremely. If you hold your arms out straight, turn your hands in perpendicular and lay them flat on top of each other, that is the position his feet took.

For over a year our baby boy wore a brace exactly like the one in the photo above for 23 hours each day. He learned to crawl and sit up with that brace on. As a proud mother, I thought he was especially clever to learn to maneuver at lightening speed with that brace on and to learn to sit up on schedule. The strategy he developed for sitting was to go from crawl to an upright position on his knees then to sit back with his feet splayed out behind him, firmly separated by that brace.

The day finally came when we could all say goodbye to the brace. That is when, for the first time, the orthopedist told us that one of his feet still turned inward.

“Why?” I asked. He said it was because I had let our son sit with his feet behind him. I was astounded that the orthopedist had never said anything about it before, and had not cautioned us about letting him sit that way.

I asked if, in the future, he could supply a warning about that to parents when the brace was prescribed for a child. He hem-hawed around. It seemed clear to me that he was attempting to avoid any responsibility that might stick to him.

Fast forward almost 30 years. After seeing those little shoes and that brace, I went online to see what the treatment is today for our son’s form of intoeing, the medical term for “pigeon-toed.” It turns out that the brace is out of fashion.

Current research maintains that braces or special shoes are useless as a treatment and that intoeing usually clears up on its own as the child grows. And if it doesn’t clear up, the condition doesn’t affect mobility.  The University of Maryland Medical Center site I checked noted that some of the best track and field athletes are pigeon-toed.

And our son is doing just fine. The foot that did not completely straighten is either straight now or straight enough that even Jeremy doesn’t notice it. Jeremy’s wife also had the same kind of brace but didn’t wear hers as consistently. She outgrew the intoeing and danced her way from pre-school through college.

Thanks to the information on the UMMC Web site and, I have cleaned out those lingering feelings of guilt that occasionally cropped up from that last doctor’s visit.

There is no anger about putting our son—and the rest of the family--through that brace experience. What's done is done. Doctors and parents can only make decisions based on the knowledge of the time.

I do hope, however, that the orthopedist refined his techniques for keeping parents informed so that they could be effective partners in their child’s development. My anger is gone now. In its place is thankfulness that Jeremy is okay and appreciation for the doctors currently in our lives and the lives of our supreme elders, our children and our grandchildren.

One of our supreme elders, my mother and Jeremy’s grandmother, examines the historical display at Hattiesburg Clinic.


  1. Awesome post. My son John also wore this brace. He grew up to be 6'2" with size 13 feet so I suppose it was a good thing. Sorry you had such a tough time with your son's wayward feet. Hopefully he can stand on his own feet today. Dianne

  2. What an interesting post! I can barely remember those braces. The shoes without toes made me think of my husband's baby pictures. Apparently, his mom cut the toes out of his shoes as he began to outgrow them!

    It's amazing how children learn to adapt, as your son did while wearing his braces.

    I love the photograph showing your mom's reflection in the glass while looking at the display that brought back so many memories...It's a special photograph, I'm guessing you feel that, too...

  3. My son wore those also. He still has a slight toe turn in. Not very noticable unless you really look. We did what we thought was best, with the advice of pediatricians and the medical world.

  4. What an awful looking contraption, it's a wonder he learned to manage so well with it, but kids are amazingly inventive and flexible. How wonderful you do not still harbor bad feelings. I think back then people were more concerned with perfectionism, but there are so many things that treatments actually make worse. I'm glad your son is doing fine now!

  5. Well, my friends in high school said that the reason I had such superior upper body strength was because I had to crawl around using just my arms as a baby! HA!

    Jeremy, not Katie

  6. Medical "science" is ever evolving, isn't it? Is it a surprise to recognize that it is called "practicing medicine"?

  7. my daughter, Molly, was also prescribed one of those braces, but being my third child, I didn't make her wear it very often. Her feet turned out fine but I've always felt guilty about that - for being a bad mother. Thanks for making me feel better.

  8. I remember seeing those braces on babies when my boys were young in the 60's. glad your son is fine and that our doctors have learned more and more.

  9. What an interesting post. And you were right, the doctors worked with the tools they had.
    Each day proceedures are set aside as new ones take their place. We do the best we can with what is available.
    So glad he turned just fine.