What Is Kyphosis?

Kyphosis is a medical disorder of the middle and upper back, caused by excessive outward curvature of the thoracic spine. It is most apparent in the negative effect it has on posture. Persons with kyphosis carry themselves in a stooped position, with rounded shoulders and a visible hump on the back. (A layperson’s term for kyphosis is “hunchback”.) Though more typically a self-image problem than a health issue, extreme cases of kyphosis can result in chronic pain, spinal deformity, and respiratory dysfunction.

Kyphosis is thought to be fairly common. It can occur at any age, but develops most frequently during adolescence and in older women, when it also known as dowager’s hump. Medical science has developed several treatment options. For more information, see your Baptist Health medical provider or a member of our orthopedic team.

What Are Kyphosis Symptoms?

Kyphosis is marked by a number of symptoms:

  • A forward-bent head
  • Rounded shoulders
  • Differences in shoulder height
  • An upper-back hump
  • Back pain and fatigue
  • Spinal stiffness
  • Tightened thigh muscles (hamstrings), which help to compensate for changes in the body’s weight distribution.

There are several types of kyphosis. Three of the most common are:

  • Congenital: Congenital kyphosis is an infant disorder. It results from a defect in spinal development while the child is in the womb. Corrective surgery is usually required to address this condition.
  • Postural: The most common form of kyphosis is postural. It typically develops during adolescence as poor or slumped posture. Girls appear more susceptible than boys. It is rarely a problem later in life.
  • Scheuermann’s: Scheuermann’s kyphosis also manifests in adolescence but is a more serious medical condition. It results from a structural abnormality in which the thoracic vertebrae, normally rectangular, are triangular-shaped instead. This creates compression at the front of the spinal column, pulling the body forward and creating a hump-like effect on the upper back. Unlike postural kyphosis, Scheuermann’s is more likely in boys.

What Causes Kyphosis?

Kyphosis can result from a wide variety of causes. Included among these are:

  • Aging
  • Arthritis
  • Birth defects
  • Cancerous tumors
  • Curvature of the spine (scoliosis)
  • Infection or injury
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Osteoporosis
  • Paget disease
  • Polio
  • Posture problems
  • Slipped discs
  • Spinal abnormalities, like those responsible for Scheuermann’s
  • Weak upper-back muscles

Having a family member with kyphosis, or a related medical issue such as osteoporosis (low bone density) increases the risk of excessive spinal curvature.

How Is Kyphosis Diagnosed?

Your physician will diagnose kyphosis in the following manner:

  • Document your symptoms and medical history, including whether any family members have dealt with a similar condition.
  • Conduct physical and neurological exams, checking your height, weight, flexibility, reflexes, and muscle strength, as well as recording observations about the degree and disposition of your spinal curvature.
  • Order imaging tests, including X-rays, MRIs, and/or CT scans, looking for evidence of spinal abnormalities, tumors, and other physical causes of excessive curvature.
  • Administer a bone-density test, to determine possible weakness or brittleness in the thoracic vertebrae.

In more severe cases, your physician might order a pulmonary-function test, to ascertain the risk to your breathing of a compressed chest cavity.

How Is Kyphosis Treated?

There are a number of treatment options for kyphosis. Your physician’s recommendation will be based on the severity and cause of your condition:

  • Bracing: Braces can be useful in checking excessive spinal curvature in children and adolescents who are still undergoing bone growth.
  • Exercise: Exercise can improve posture, strengthen back muscles, relieve stress, and improve flexibility for persons dealing with a milder (postural) version of kyphosis.
  • Pain medications: Over-the-counter pain relievers, including ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and naproxen sodium, can address normal levels of discomfort. Stronger prescription medications are available, as needed.
  • Osteoporosis medications: If a bone-density test indicates a problem with bone porosity, your doctor may prescribe a drug to counteract that. Eating foods rich in vitamin D and calcium is also recommended.
  • Surgery: The most serious cases sometimes call for surgery. Spinal fusion, or the fastening of vertebrae with metal rods and screws, is the most common means of restoring the spinal column to a healthier, more axial position.

Physical therapy, yoga, and a weight-loss diet are also useful in renewing flexibility and reducing the load on an already-stressed spinal column.

Can Kyphosis be Prevented?

Kyphosis can be prevented. Good posture, regular exercise, and orthopedically sound work equipment can reduce, though not eliminate, the likelihood of developing this medical condition.

Confused About Kyphosis? Baptist Health Can Help

Though kyphosis is rarely a serious medical threat, it can be, under more extreme circumstances, a painful and limiting condition, even to the point of pulmonary obstruction. If you are experiencing symptoms of kyphosis, contact the Baptist Health Orthopedic Team to schedule an appointment.

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