A normal spine has a slight C-shaped curve in front of the body (neck area) and an opposite-facing, “lordotic” curve in the back. The term kyphosis refers to any spinal curvature that bends excessively outwards, away from the body’s center, including any excessive curvature that affects the cervical spine (neck).
More commonly seen in older women, cervical kyphosis is an exaggerated kyphotic curve in the cervical spine that gives the upper back a rounded-forward appearance. When you have cervical spine kyphosis, developing the best treatment program starts with understanding the type and severity of kyphotic abnormality you have.
How is Cervical Kyphosis Diagnosed?
Cervical kyphosis can mean your neck is either abnormally straight (military neck) or bent slightly forward. As opposed to the other types of cervical kyphosis, people with military neck look like they are “standing at attention.”
Determining the root cause of your cervical kyphosis will require a complete medical history and comprehensive physical examination. That initial spine consultation will allow your doctor to evaluate factors like neck function, pain, and tenderness.
You may also be asked to undergo additional testing that examines the nerves that leave the spine. Those tests might be ordered to determine if you have numbness in your arms and hands, or to test your reflexes, the strength of arm, leg, and hand muscles, or to identify any signs of nerve irritation.
Kyphosis typically presents as a curvature of the spine measuring 50 degrees or greater on an X-ray. Radiology techniques like X-rays are a powerful diagnostic tool for detecting spinal deformities because they clearly show the bones of the cervical spine, while most soft tissue structures like nerves, discs, and muscles do not show up.
X-rays can show problems that affect the bones, such as fractures, tumors, or infection, and reveal the level of spine degeneration that occurred. When you have cervical kyphosis, the pictures resulting from X-rays can tell your doctor a great deal about your spinal deformity and what is causing it.
Causes of Cervical Kyphosis
As a condition that can develop in children and adults, cervical kyphosis may be caused by:
In these instances, the problem results from the effects of medical treatment, such as radiation or surgery. Kyphosis following laminectomy surgery is common and happens more frequently with children rather than adults. An iatrogenic cervical kyphosis can also occur after a failed cervical spine fusion.
Degenerative disc disease
In older adults, the wear and tear of aging on vertebra discs can cause them to collapse. As the discs collapse and grow thinner, each disc head tilts forward, and the neck begins to curve forward too. As the weight of the patient’s head causes an imbalance that pushes the neck increasingly forward, the process of degeneration may continue for years— resulting in kyphosis.
A congenital defect
Congenital kyphosis is a structural condition that develops before birth due to issues of bone malformation within the spine itself. Although infants are born with congenital kyphosis, the condition can progress with age, growth, and development. Kyphosis in children can also be associated with specific syndromes, such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and Marfan syndrome.
That’s why being proactive with treatment is essential for counteracting the curvature’s tendency to progress with growth. Based on the child’s age, treatments for congenital kyphosis may include kyphosis-specific chiropractic care, physical therapy, and, when indicated, a cervical kyphosis brace.
Sometimes kyphosis is the result of a traumatic injury to the cervical spine. For example, a sports injury or motor vehicle accident can cause a compression fracture of the neck vertebrae. In some cases, the vertebral body reforms in the shape of a wedge as the fracture heals.
The resulting imbalance can result in an increased forward curvature of the neck. If the trauma-induced kyphosis becomes bad enough, it can narrow the spinal canal, resulting in a condition known as spinal stenosis.
Other cervical kyphosis causes include:
- Metabolic problems
- Neuromuscular conditions
- Poor posture (Postural Kyphosis, the most common type in adolescents)
- Osteogenesis Imperfecta (brittle bone disease)
- Spina bifida
- Cancer and cancer treatments
Note: Scheuermann’s kyphosis is a condition that causes the vertebrae to curve forward in the upper back area. Commonly seen in males, the cause of Scheuermann’s kyphosis is unknown.
Symptoms of Cervical Kyphosis
Mild cervical spine kyphosis may produce no noticeable signs or symptoms. On the other hand, some people experience back pain and stiffness with an abnormally curved spine. In general, variables like patient age, condition severity, and kyphosis type will influence the kinds of symptoms that develop.
Early symptoms may include:
- An abnormal curve in the neck that’s visible to the naked eye
- Difficulty turning the head or looking up
- Neck pain/stiffness
- Mild to severe headaches
- A round back appearance
- A difference in shoulder height
As kyphosis progresses, it can lead to more noticeable and serious symptoms like:
- Pain, tingling, or numbness in various areas of the body due to nerve compression
- Difficulties with limb mobility
- Bladder and bowel problems
- Shortness of breath
- Dropped head syndrome (severe cases)
Once it has become excessive, cervical spine kyphosis can also cause body image issues that lower the patient’s self-esteem. Learning how to treat cervical kyphosis is a critical first step in correcting the condition.
Treatment of Kyphosis
Spinal conditions like kyphosis are highly variable, meaning no two cases are alike. Any treatment plan must be fully customized to address the patient’s specific needs, including surgical and nonsurgical options. Your doctor will recommend a treatment program based on your condition’s cause, symptoms, and severity.
For example, postural kyphosis is rather easily corrected with education about proper posture, along with retraining the patient on how to sit and stand correctly. At The Spine Center, we’ve recently seen many positive before and after results in patients with postural cervical kyphosis that developed the condition after spending too much time on digital devices.
These are proven treatments for excessive cervical spinal kyphosis:
- Surgery – A spinal fusion combined with a “segmental instrumentation” is the most common type of surgery for kyphosis. During this procedure, a metal plate or rod is used to hold the spine in the proper alignment to straighten it.
- Cervical Traction – Cervical traction gently extends the neck, opening the spaces between the cervical vertebrae and temporarily alleviating pressure on the affected discs.
- Exercise – Exercise combined with good posture may help improve rounded back. Your doctor may prescribe physical therapy exercises as a standalone treatment or after surgery.
- Bracing – As the primary treatment option for children born with the condition, wearing a brace can help patients of any age fix their cervical kyphosis.
Patients have also had some success minimizing discomfort caused by their condition by using a cervical kyphosis pillow. Although it’s not technically a “treatment,” cervical mattress pillows have many features that are well-suited for alleviating neck and back pain.
When diagnosed and treated early, most patients with cervical kyphosis go on to live normal, productive lives. If you suspect that you or a loved one are experiencing an abnormal spinal curvature, your best bet is to promptly schedule a spine consultation with a highly trained back and neck specialist like an orthopedic surgeon.
Diagnosing and Treating Spine Conditions is Our Specialty
At The Spine Center, we’re dedicated to providing you with high-quality, personalized back and neck care. We strive to offer efficient and professional services to our patients, delivered with integrity and honesty in a cohesive, family-like environment. We have a solid commitment to excellence in diagnosing and treating spinal injuries and conditions spanning all age groups.
As fellowship-trained physicians with over 50 years of experience treating spinal conditions, we offer patient recommendations for treatment, including conservative care, non-operative treatment, and sophisticated, customized surgical solutions. Our physicians serve as innovators in technology, actively participate in national and international research studies, and are at the forefront of medical knowledge. If you or a loved one suffer from back or neck pain, call The Spine Center today at (847) 698-9330 to schedule a consultation.