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Preventing and Treating the Curved Back of Kyphosis (Dowager’s Hump)

You’ve probably seen older people who always seem hunched over, with a rounded back and shoulders that pull forward. This condition is called kyphosis. It used to be called dowager’s hump because it was associated with older women. 

Kyphosis can affect people of any age or any gender. The risk might be higher for people who spend a lot of time hunched over phones and desks. 

If you have kyphosis, the main symptom you’ll notice is a rounded or hunched back. You may also have neck and upper back pain, especially after sitting or standing for a long time. As the curve gets worse, it may be harder for you to bend or twist.

Julie Barnett, a physical therapist with Banner Physical Therapy, explained more about the condition.

What causes kyphosis?

“It’s caused when your upper back and neck muscles are weak and your neck and chest are tight,” Barnett said.

A few different factors can put you at higher risk for the condition:

  • Osteoporosis: With osteoporosis, your bones get thinner and weaker. The vertebrae in your spine may collapse or get compressed, so your spine isn’t straight anymore. Women are more likely to have osteoporosis after menopause, so they are more likely to have kyphosis.
  • Poor posture: Slouching or hunching forward can stress your back, especially if you sit or stand for a long time. 
  • Aging: As you get older, your bone density, muscle strength and the elasticity of your connective tissue all get lower. Plus, you could develop changes in your spine that lead to curving. Kyphosis is more common in people over age 50.
  • Lifestyle factors: Being sedentary, smoking and poor nutrition can increase your risk.

You may also be at higher risk if you have certain bone or ligament problems, or medical conditions you were born with.

Can you reverse kyphosis?

“Whether you can reverse kyphosis depends on what’s causing it, how severe the curve is and how well you respond to treatment,” Barnett said. Starting targeted treatment early improves the odds of stopping or reversing the curve. 

Mild cases that stem from poor posture are more treatable than advanced cases from osteoporosis or spinal problems. Treatment can help improve your posture, reduce pain, increase mobility and flexibility and make it easier to do daily activities.

It can help to: 

  • Correct your posture: Learning good ergonomics can help you keep your spine aligned and reduce strain during your daily activities.
  • Strengthen your spine: Building strength in your back, shoulders and core can counteract the curve.
  • Work with a physical therapist to help balance your muscles, improve flexibility and align your spine. Physical therapy can help you increase your mobility and reduce pain. 
  • Treat conditions like osteoporosis with medications like bisphosphonates and selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs), as well as calcium and vitamin D supplements. Your primary care provider can give you more information about these interventions. 

You may also want to try alternative therapies like chiropractic care and acupuncture. Chiropractic adjustments manipulate your spine to align it and reduce pressure on the vertebrae. Acupuncture involves inserting thin needles into places in the body to relieve pain and help you relax. Talk to your provider before trying any alternative therapies.

In severe cases where you have a lot of pain, your spine is unstable or you have neurological problems, your health care provider may suggest surgery. 

  • Vertebroplasty is when a provider injects bone cement into the spine to support it and reduce pain.
  • Kyphoplasty is a procedure where a provider inserts a device similar to a balloon into the spine to restore height and improve alignment. They then fill that space with bone cement. 

Exercises that may help

Exercises like chin tucks, shoulder blade squeezes and doorway stretches can help with kyphosis. If you’re not sure how to do them properly, check with a physical therapist.

Chin tucks

Sit or stand with your back straight. Look straight ahead and gently pull your head backward, like you are giving yourself a double chin. Don’t move your head up or down. You should feel muscles deep in the front of your neck working. Hold for five to six seconds and gently relax.  Repeat 12 to 15 times.   

Shoulder blade (scapular) squeezes

Sit or stand with your back straight, arms at your sides, elbow straight, palms facing forward.  Squeeze your shoulder blades down and back. You should feel the muscles between your shoulder blades working. Hold for five to six seconds and gently relax. Repeat 12 to 15 times.   

Doorway (pectoralis) stretches

Stand one to two feet in front of a doorway. Bend both elbows, raise both arms so your upper arms are parallel to the floor and place your forearms on either side of the doorway. Step forward with one foot, into the doorway.  Slowly shift your weight onto your front foot until you feel a stretch in your chest. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat three to five times.

Tips for preventing kyphosis

Healthy habits that keep your spine aligned and your bones healthy may help: 

  • Practice good posture: Whether you’re sitting, standing or walking, keep your shoulders back, chin parallel to the ground and spine aligned and neutral. 
  • Modify your workspace: Use adjustable chairs or lumbar cushions when you have to sit for a long time. Set your monitor so your eyes are in line with the top of the screen. Take breaks to stretch and change position.
  • Use your cell phone properly: Hold your phone so you’re looking straight at it, not down.
  • Get regular physical activity: Aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity most days of the week. Add exercises like yoga, Pilates or weightlifting that strengthen your back, shoulders and core and help keep your spine strong and balanced.
  • Choose bone-strengthening foods: Make sure you get enough calcium from foods like dairy, leafy greens, tofu and fortified cereals. Include vitamin D-rich foods like fatty fish, eggs and fortified dairy products. Limit processed foods, sugary beverages and caffeine, which can lead to bone loss.

The bottom line

Kyphosis, or dowager’s hump, is a condition where your upper back becomes curved and your shoulders pull forward. It’s associated with older women, but it can happen to anyone. Good posture and strengthening your back, shoulders and core may help prevent or treat it.

If you would like to learn more about how to prevent kyphosis and keep your spine healthy, reach out to an expert at Banner Health.

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