The term “kyphosis” refers to an abnormal curving of the spine typically in the thoracic region resulting in a rounding of the back that produces a slouching or hunchback posture.
A healthy spine exhibits a series of normal front to back curves. When viewed from the side these curves give the spine a soft “S” shaped appearance. Each of these curves is designed to manage the load applied to the spine from the weight of the body and to allow the head to balance directly over the pelvis. A condition known as kyphosis occurs when the natural arch in the thoracic region bends to a greater degree than normal.
While mild kyphosis may cause few problems, pronounced cases can result in more debilitating symptoms and disfigurement. The most severe cases of thoracic kyphosis can lead to compression of the spinal cord and related neurological impairment. It can also compromise the chest space and lead to the development of cardiac and pulmonary problems.
Abnormal kyphosis may be postural or structural. The most common type of is caused by poor posture and generally does not lead to a severe curve or significant problems. Structural deformities of the vertebrae are present in Scheuermann’s kyphosis, seen in young teens, and in congenital kyphosis, which is the least common type of abnormal kyphosis.
In adults, abnormal kyphosis can be the result of other conditions or insults to the spine. Among these disorders are degenerative diseases of the spine, including arthritis or disc degeneration, multiple compression fractures from osteoporosis, ankylosing spondylitis, spindylolisthesis, spine infections, and spine tumors. During a physical examination, the doctor will evaluate the curvature of the spine and perform a neurological exam. Based on these findings further diagnostic testing may be recommended.
Treatment of kyphosis depends on the cause of the disorder. Postural kyphosis usually responds to physical therapy, as well as mild pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications. Surgery is recommended if the kyphosis is very severe and/or causing painful and debilitating neurological symptoms that have not responded to conservative treatment. Cases of congenital kyphosis often involve surgery when the patient is an infant to allow for improved growth and development.