As a society, we’re slouchers — we hunch over cell phones, hover over our keyboards, and slump in our comfortable sofas and chairs. All this slouching diminishes both the alignment of the spine and the muscle strength in the back, and over time, it alters the physical structure of the spine.
In a recent blog post, I mentioned the video I’d done regarding kyphosis (what many of us call “dowager’s hump” or “hunchback”) and how changing posture to align the spine properly could help people prevent or alleviate kyphosis. Doing this video also gave me some insight on the connection between spinal fractures and kyphosis.
Many people associate kyphosis with osteoporosis because they think that kyphosis means they have vertebral fractures — when it most often does not. Back in 2009, I wrote about a 2007 study showing that even severe kyphosis has limited value in predicting fractures. But other studies have shown that while many people with kyphosis do not have vertebral fractures, quite a few have degenerative disc disease — that is, the soft pads between the vertebrae are worn down or damaged. And among people with more extreme kyphosis (that is, whose backs were bent at a sharper angle), there is a greater likelihood of fracture.
This tells me that kyphosis alter both the spine’s shape and function. We’re meant to carry the weight of our upper body using our back muscles, our pelvis, and our legs — all constructed to withstand this kind of pressure — while the spine provides alignment and flexibility. In someone whose spine is improperly aligned, the downward pressure of the upper body’s weight shifts from the legs and pelvis onto the vertebrae. Moreover, the angles involved mean that these forces don’t press uniformly downward on properly stacked vertebrae — instead, with the spine tilted forward, the forces press on each vertebra at an angle. And that increases the chance of fracture.
In a person with kyphosis and thinning, weakened bones, the upper body’s weight represents a load the vertebrae may not be able to tolerate. This is why some people experience spinal fractures simply by bending over — a fear of so many people with osteoporosis. And unless you have good postural alignment, most forms of exercise may not help to strengthen the bones of the spine. In such circumstances, exercise may actually hurt your bone health!
So what can we do about it? For people with mild to moderate kyphosis, or for those who simply want to prevent it, there are plenty of steps that can be taken to help maintain the strength of your spine. I’ve talked at length about how to support your bones with an alkaline diet, exercise, detoxification, and stress reduction — and of course I would recommend these steps to anyone concerned about vertebral fractures, with or without kyphosis. But if you’re showing signs of developing kyphosis (or even if you want to prevent the possibility), here are some other tips:
1. If you don’t exercise currently, work with a physiotherapist or a Pilates instructor to develop a routine that addresses any posture or alignment issues. If you already exercise, a session or two with a personal trainer might be helpful to make sure you’re using correct technique with proper spinal alignment.
2. Mindful exercises like t’ai chi and yoga emphasize good posture and promote the gentle stretching of muscles, so they can be very helpful.
3. If you have kyphosis, or even if you just habitually slouch, the muscles in your back may have weakened or atrophied. You may need specific exercises to stretch and strengthen these muscles to prevent further deterioration.
4. A weighted vest like the one we offer in our store makes routine movement weight-bearing while helping to enforce correct posture (it is very difficult to slouch while wearing a weight vest!).
Those who already have mild to moderate kyphosis should review any new exercise program with their health care practitioner and may also want to talk with a physician about degenerative disc disease, particularly if standing straight causes pain. For people with severe kyphosis who want to exercise, it’s essential to talk with your physician or physical therapist before you start. I encourage people who are concerned about spinal fractures to visit NaturalPosturalSolutions.com and learn more about correct posture — especially if you already suffer from kyphosis. The video that Kathleen and I made is a great starting point too (but remember to sit up straight when you watch it!)
Schneider DL, von Mühlen D, Barrett-Connor E, Sartoris DJ. 2004. Kyphosis does not equal vertebral fractures: the Rancho Bernardo study. J Rheumatol. Apr;31(4):747-52. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15088302 (accessed 09.02.2011).
Huang MH, Barrett-Connor E, Greendale GA, Kado DM. 2006. Hyperkyphotic posture and risk of future osteoporotic fractures: the Rancho Bernardo study. J Bone Miner Res. Mar;21(3):419-23. Epub 2005 Dec 5. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16491290 (accessed 09.02.2011).
We created the Osteo Blast blog as our forum to express opinions and educate the public about natural means of supporting and improving bone health and overall wellness. As part of this forum, we sometimes discuss medical issues and medications, and their effects on bone health in general. However, we cannot advise readers about specific medical issues in this forum. If you wish to obtain advice from Susan E. Brown, PhD, about your specific bone health and nutritional concerns, please visit our Consultations page. Other specific medical questions should be referred to your healthcare provider.