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Curvature of the spine

Mark Bartley, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

Download this image from Wellcome Collection.

Photograph of a 79-year-old woman’s back, showing an abnormally curved spine. This hunched back appearance is known as kyphosis, or ‘dowager’s hump’, and causes the upper back and shoulders to round forward. Although kyphosis can occur at any age, it is most commonly seen in elderly women. There are many different causes, including poor posture, injury, osteoporosis, cancer and cancer treatments, infection, a birth defect, and degenerative or endocrine diseases. In addition to having an abnormally curved spine, other symptoms can include back pain, stiffness and – in severe cases – difficulty breathing or eating. Treatment options are varied and will depend on the cause and severity of the condition.

How is kyphosis treated?

Treatment for kyphosis varies depending on the underlying cause and the severity of the condition. Exercise and pain relief medication can often control many cases of mild kyphosis, and wearing a back brace while the bones are still growing (e.g. in children and teenagers) may prevent the condition from worsening. In adults whose bones have stopped growing, a brace will not cause the spine to straighten but may help with pain relief. In the elderly, kyphosis may be a sign of osteoporosis, a condition that weakens bones and can sometimes lead to fractures in the spine. Treating the osteoporosis may help prevent future spinal fractures from occurring, which could otherwise cause the kyphosis to worsen. If necessary, surgery may be offered for severe cases of kyphosis or for babies born with a birth defect (congenital kyphosis).