Kyphosis is a forward rounding of the back. Some rounding is normal, but the term "kyphosis" usually refers to an exaggerated rounding of the back. While kyphosis can occur at any age, it's most common in older women.

Age-related kyphosis often occurs after osteoporosis weakens spinal bones to the point that they crack and compress. Other types of kyphosis are seen in infants or teens due to malformation of the spine or wedging of the spinal bones over time.

Mild kyphosis causes few problems, but severe cases can cause pain and be disfiguring. Treatment for kyphosis depends on your age, the cause of the curvature and its effects.

In addition to an abnormally curved spine, kyphosis can also cause back pain and stiffness in some people. Mild cases of kyphosis may produce no noticeable signs or symptoms.

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice an increased curve in your upper back or in your child's spine.

The individual bones (vertebrae) that make up a healthy spine look like cylinders stacked in a column. Kyphosis occurs when the vertebrae in the upper back become more wedge-shaped. This deformity can be caused by a variety of problems, including:

  • Osteoporosis. This bone-thinning disorder can result in crushed vertebrae (compression fractures). Osteoporosis is most common in older adults, particularly women, and in people who have taken high doses of corticosteroids for long periods of time.
  • Disk degeneration. Soft, circular disks act as cushions between spinal vertebrae. With age, these disks dry out and shrink, which often worsens kyphosis.
  • Scheuermann's disease. Also called Scheuermann's kyphosis, this disease typically begins during the growth spurt that occurs before puberty. Boys are affected more often than are girls. The rounding of the back may worsen as the child finishes growing.
  • Birth defects. If a baby's spinal column doesn't develop properly in the womb, the spinal bones may not form properly, causing kyphosis.
  • Syndromes. Kyphosis in children can also be associated with certain syndromes, such as Marfan syndrome or Prader-Willi disease.
  • Cancer and cancer treatments. Cancer in the spine can weaken vertebrae and make them more prone to compression fractures, as can chemotherapy and radiation cancer treatments.

An increased curve in the upper spine also can be caused by slouching. Called postural kyphosis, this condition doesn't involve any deformities in the spine. It's most common in teenagers.

Kyphosis may cause the following complications:

  • Body image problems. Adolescents especially may develop a poor body image from having a rounded back or from wearing a brace to correct the condition.
  • Back pain. In some cases, the misalignment of the spine can lead to pain, which can become severe and disabling.
  • Decreased appetite. In severe cases, the curve may cause the abdomen to be compressed and lead to decreased appetite.

If you or your child has signs or symptoms common to kyphosis, make an appointment with your family doctor. He or she may refer you to a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of spine disorders.

What you can do

Before your appointment, you may want to write a list of answers to the following questions:

  • When did you first notice the symptoms?
  • Did any back injuries happen around the same time?
  • Have any close biological relatives had similar signs and symptoms or been diagnosed with a spine disorder?
  • What medications and supplements are taken regularly?

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor may ask some of the following questions:

  • Is there any pain? If so, where exactly does it hurt?
  • Do symptoms include fever, chills or unexplained weight loss?
  • Do symptoms include weakness, numbness, difficulty walking, or changes in bladder or bowel habits?
  • Do symptoms include fatigue or shortness of breath?

During the physical exam, your doctor will check your height and may ask you to bend forward from the waist while he or she views the spine from the side. With kyphosis, the rounding of the upper back may become more obvious in this position. Your doctor might also perform a neurological exam to check your reflexes and muscle strength.

Imaging tests

Depending upon your signs and symptoms, you may need:

  • X-rays. Plain X-rays are used to determine the degree of curvature and can detect deformities of the vertebrae, which helps identify the type of kyphosis.
  • Computerized tomography (CT scan). If more detail is required, your doctor might order a CT scan — which takes X-ray images from many different angles and then combines them to form cross-sectional images of internal structures.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). If your doctor suspects a tumor or infection, he or she may request an MRI of your spine. MRI uses radio waves and a very strong magnet to produce detailed images of both bone and soft tissues.

Nerve tests

If you are experiencing any numbness or muscle weakness, your doctor may recommend several tests that can determine how well nerve impulses are traveling between your spinal cord and your extremities.

Kyphosis treatment depends on the cause of the condition and the signs and symptoms that are present.

Medications

Your doctor may suggest:

  • Pain relievers. If over-the-counter medicines — such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen (Aleve) — aren't enough, stronger pain medications are available by prescription.
  • Osteoporosis drugs. In many older people, kyphosis is the first clue that they have osteoporosis. Bone-strengthening drugs may help prevent additional spinal fractures that would cause your kyphosis to worsen.

Therapy

Some types of kyphosis can be helped by:

  • Exercises. Stretching exercises can improve spinal flexibility and relieve back pain. Exercises that strengthen the abdominal muscles may help improve posture.
  • Bracing. Children who have Scheuermann's disease may be able to stop the progression of kyphosis by wearing a body brace while their bones are still growing.
  • Healthy lifestyle. Maintaining a healthy body weight and regular physical activity will help prevent back pain and relieve back symptoms from kyphosis.
  • Maintaining good bone density. Proper diet with calcium and vitamin D and screening for low bone density, particularly if there is a family history of osteoporosis or history of previous fracture, may help older adults avoid weak bones, compression fractures and subsequent kyphosis.

Surgical and other procedures

If the kyphosis curve is very severe or if the curve is pinching the spinal cord or nerve roots, your doctor might suggest surgery to reduce the degree of curvature.

The most common procedure, called spinal fusion, connects two or more of the affected vertebrae permanently. Surgeons insert pieces of bone between the vertebrae and then fasten the vertebrae together with metal rods and screws until the spine heals together in a corrected position.

  • Experience. Mayo Clinic doctors have extensive experience in treating even the most severe cases of kyphosis. Hundreds of children with kyphosis are seen by Mayo Clinic doctors each year.
  • Advanced diagnostic technology. Mayo Clinic doctors use the latest imaging technology, such as EOS X-rays and 3-D printing, to develop treatment plans for children who have spinal problems like kyphosis.
  • Teamwork. At Mayo Clinic, doctors from a variety of specialties work together to treat kyphosis in children or adults.
  • Efficient care. Diagnosing your problem, recommending treatment and starting treatment, if you desire, can all be done in a few days at Mayo.

Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., are ranked among the Best Hospitals for orthopedics by U.S. News & World Report. Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., is ranked high performing for orthopedics by U.S. News & World Report. Mayo Clinic also ranks among the Best Children's Hospitals for orthopedics.

Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., is ranked among the Best Hospitals for rehabilitation by U.S. News & World Report.

At Mayo Clinic, we assemble a team of specialists who take the time to listen and thoroughly understand your health issues and concerns. We tailor the care you receive to your personal health care needs. You can trust our specialists to collaborate and offer you the best possible outcomes, safety and service.

Mayo Clinic is a not-for-profit medical institution that reinvests all earnings into improving medical practice, research and education. We're constantly involved in innovation and medical research, finding solutions to improve your care and quality of life. Your doctor or someone on your medical team is likely involved in research related to your condition.

Our patients tell us that the quality of their interactions, our attention to detail and the efficiency of their visits mean health care — and trusted answers — like they've never experienced.

Why Choose Mayo Clinic

What Sets Mayo Clinic Apart

Mayo Clinic's EOS imaging systems can produce detailed 3-D X-ray images of the spine, similar to those of CT scans but at a much lower dose of radiation. This is particularly important for children because the damaging effects of X-ray radiation may accumulate with each exposure over the length of their lives.

Another cutting-edge imaging technique available at Mayo Clinic involves 3-D printing, which can create a physical model of the deformed area of spine so that doctors can better plan the sometimes complex surgeries needed for repair; for instance, for tumor surgery or congenital deformities.

Mayo Clinic works with hundreds of insurance companies and is an in-network provider for millions of people. In most cases, Mayo Clinic doesn't require a physician referral. Some insurers require referrals or may have additional requirements for certain medical care. All appointments are prioritized on the basis of medical need.

At Mayo Clinic in Arizona, specialists in orthopedic surgery work with experts in radiology and physical medicine and rehabilitation to care for people who have kyphosis.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 800-446-2279 (toll-free) 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

At Mayo Clinic in Florida, specialists in orthopedic surgery work with experts in radiology and physical medicine and rehabilitation to care for people who have kyphosis.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 904-953-0853 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

At Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, specialists in orthopedic surgery work with experts in pediatric and adolescent medicine, radiology, and physical medicine and rehabilitation to care for people who have kyphosis.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 507-538-3270 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Central time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

See information on patient services at the three Mayo Clinic locations, including transportation options and lodging.

Mayo Clinic doctors and researchers are studying new ways to diagnose and treat kyphosis.

See a list of publications by Mayo Clinic authors on kyphosis on PubMed, a service of the National Library of Medicine.

Jun. 05, 2014