Kyphosis Symptoms and Causes

Kyphosis is defined as a curvature of the upper back measuring 50 degrees or greater when viewed from the side. A normal spine can bend between 20 and 45 degrees in the upper back area when viewed from the side and is usually straight when viewed from behind. A spine affected by kyphosis shows a forward curvature of the back bones or vertebrae in the upper back area, giving an abnormally rounded or "humpback" appearance. Kyphosis can occur at any stage in life but rarely occurs at birth.

Kyphosis Symptoms

You may experience one or more of these symptoms of kyphosis:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Mild back pain
  • Rounded or humped back
  • Tenderness and stiffness in the spine

Kyphosis itself does not typically cause any pain in the body unless it's associated with other conditions affecting the spine.

Kyphosis Diagnosis

Initially your doctor will provide a physical examination and gather your medical history. During the physical exam, the doctor will confirm the abnormal curve of the spine and check for neurological changes such as weakness, paralysis or changes in sensation below the curve. More thorough tests may include:

  • Spine x-ray
  • Pulmonary function test – if kyphosis affects your breathing
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) test – if your doctor has confirmed neurological changes during the physical exam, this diagnostic imaging procedure may be used to determine the cause. Tumors, infections and other neurological causes can be detected with an MRI.

Kyphosis Causes

In adults, the causes of kyphosis are numerous and include:

  • Injury – trauma to the spine can induce kyphosis.
  • Degenerative disease – diseases which wear down the bones in the spine such as arthritis or osteoporosis can make the spine more vulnerable to kyphosis.
  • Fractures – cracks and breaks in the bones of the spine can lead to kyphosis if left untreated. Any abnormality in the spine can possibly lead to this spine deformity.
  • Spondylolisthesis – vertebrae in the lower (lumbar) spine slip out of position onto the vertebrae below. Left untreated, this condition can eventually lead to abnormal curvature of the spine.
  • Endocrine disease – disorder of the endocrine system such as diabetes or thyroid disease
  • Connective tissue disorder – certain connective tissue disorders can affect the tissue around the spine, therefore making the spine more vulnerable to spinal deformity.
  • Infections – from diseases like tuberculosis, a bacteria that affects the lungs, bones and brain
  • Muscular dystrophy – an inherited disorder that involve loss of muscle tissue and muscle weakness
  • Neurofibromatosis – a genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow in the nervous system
  • Paget’s disease – a bone disease that causes bones to grow too large and weak
  • Polio – a viral disease that affects nerves and can eventually lead to partial or complete paralysis
  • Spina bifida – a birth defect that prevents the spinal canal and backbone from closing before birth. In some cases, it causes the spine and the surrounding tissues to protrude from the infant's back.
  • Tumors – abnormal growths in the spine

Kyphosis in Adolescents

Scheuermann's kyphosis develops during adolescence without a known cause and results from the melding or wedging of several vertebrae in the spine.

Treatment for kyphosis usually concentrates on correcting the underlying issues that caused the spinal deformity and is dependent upon its severity. Corrective measures range from back braces and therapy for Scheuermann’s disease to corrective surgery such as kyphoplasty or spinal fusion surgery.

The multidisciplinary team of orthopaedic experts at North Shore-LIJ Orthopaedic Institute's Spine Services in New York treats kyphosis as well as a broad range of spine conditions that can occur at any stage of life.

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