Hunchback posture causes an unsightly, painful hump in the upper back. The good news is that hunchback is often reversible when you commit to a treatment plan. Here's what doctors and therapists say about how to fix hunchback.
- What is hunchback?
- How to tell if you have hunchback posture
- Hunchback causes
- Hunchback symptoms
- How to fix hunchback
What is hunchback? An exaggerated curve of the upper spine
Hunchback is a type of kyphosis in which the upper back has an exaggerated convex curve, lending the appearance of a hump. The condition affects more than three million people per year in the United States (Mercy Health).
"Hunchback posture is clinically defined as an increased thoracic kyphosis," says Anthony Maritato, PT, a licensed physical therapist and founder of ChoosePT1st.com. "The thoracic spine starts at the base of the neck and extends down to the top of the lumbar spine. It includes the twelve thoracic vertebrae and intervertebral discs."
Other names for hunchback include:
- Dowager's hump
- Thoracic kyphosis
- Scheuermann's Kyphosis (though this is a specific type of kyphosis caused by vertebral wedging)
How to tell if you have hunchback posture
The typical upper spine has a curve of between 20 and 45 degrees. If yours exceeds 50 degrees, you have kyphosis, or hunchback posture (Cleveland Clinic).
"There are several ways to tell if you have hunchback posture. One way is to look at yourself in the mirror. If your shoulders are rounded and your head is jutting forward, you likely have kyphosis. Another way to tell is to ask someone to take a photo of you from the side. If your spine looks more curved than normal, you may have kyphosis," says Michael Jones, MS, CErg, certified ergonomist, posture expert and author of the book, Stand Up! Upgrade Your Posture...Transform Your Life, who teaches posture correction and mobility routines at Mobility 101.
You can also do the wall test:
- Stand with your back against the wall
- See if you can touch the wall with your sacrum, shoulder blades and the back of your head at the same time
- If you can't, you might have hunchback
"You should notice three points of contact against the wall," says Maritato. "The back of your skull, your shoulder blades and your sacrum should touch the wall with a slight arch in your spine at the neck and lumbar spine."
"The physiological mechanisms at work in hunchback posture are those that cause the spine to curve forward. This is most often due to muscle weakness or paralysis, which can cause the muscles in the back to become weak and no longer be able to support the spine," says Lalitha McSorley, PT, lead physical therapist at Brentwood Physiotherapy Calgary. "Other factors can cause it, including congenital spine deformities, poor posture habits and arthritis."
Hunchback causes include:
- Slouching, especially over your phone, laptop or desktop computer
- Occupational posture, such as how you sit or stand at work
- Repeatedly carrying heavy loads, such as backpacks
- Lordosis, if kyphosis develops in response
- A sedentary lifestyle that doesn't engage postural muscles
- Muscle weaknesses and imbalances
- Spinal injuries
- Disc issues (slipped, bulging, herniated discs)
Diseases and conditions
- Scheuermann's disease
- Spina bifida
- Paget's disease
- Muscular dystrophy
- Infections and tumors
"A hunchback posture puts undue stress on your muscles and joints, leading to pain and inflammation," says Jones. "Hunchback posture is one of the most common causes of musculoskeletal pain, so improving your posture should be one of your top priorities if you're dealing with chronic pain."
Hunchback symptoms include:
- A protruding hump on your back
- Rounded back
- Rounded shoulders
- Forward head posture
- Neck strain
- Tight hamstrings
Left untreated, hunchback posture could lead to:
- Weakness, tingling and numbness
- Shortness of breath from respiratory complications
- Changes in bowel or bladder habits
- Digestive problems/compressed digestive tract
- Heart issues
- Chronic stress
- Reduced range of motion/mobility
- Depression, body image concerns and decreased confidence
- Balance issues
"The most common long-term complications of hunchback posture include difficulty breathing as a result of decreased lung capacity, upper neck pain due to excessive upper cervical extension, which may contribute to compression of the upper cervical neck roots, and decreased shoulder range of motion with overhead activities," says Maritato.
If your hunchback is severe enough to make you unbalanced, you have an increased risk of falling, fractures and death. In fact, one study found that women over 65 with hunchback are more likely to die over the next eight years than those who do not have this condition (U.S. News). Falling and fractures aren't the only causes of death – many of the women in the study died from lung conditions that may have been caused by reduced lung capacity due to a hunched posture.
"The potential long-term complications of hunchback posture are numerous and can include chronic pain, difficulty breathing and problems with the digestive system," says McSorley. "In severe cases, hunchback posture can also lead to arthritis, heart disease and other health complications."
If hunchback posture isn't treated, the condition can permanently change your musculoskeletal structure.
"The bones of the spine will actually change shape over time, contributing to the hunchback posture. Bones that were previously equal in height across the anterior to posterior borders become wedge-shaped," says Maritato. "The change in bone shape may take ten or more years when it happens slowly, or it may happen in a moment when the person experiences what is called a compression fracture."
How to fix hunchback
The good news is that, in most cases, you can fix hunchback posture through a combination of treatments.
Exercises and stretches
"One of the best ways to improve hunchback posture is to strengthen the muscles that support the spine. This can be done through various exercises, such as core or mobility exercises," says Jones. "These exercises help to lengthen and strengthen the muscles around the spine, which can help to reduce the appearance of kyphosis."
Recommended exercises and stretches for hunchback include:
1. Chest opener
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands on your hips
- Arch your back and push your hips forward until you feel a stretch in your chest
- Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then release
2. Shoulder blade squeezes
- Sit tall in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands on your thighs
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together and hold for 5 seconds
- Repeat 10 times
3. Upper back extension
- Lie on your stomach with your arms extended above your head (use a pillow for support if needed)
- Slowly lift your head off the ground, holding for 5 seconds before lowering back down
- Repeat 10 times
4. Lying chest stretch/partial sit up
- Lie flat on your back and place your hands behind your head
- Using your abs, pull your shoulders off the floor
- Hold 5 seconds, then release
- Repeat 10 times
5. Resistance band stretch
- Place a resistance band around a sturdy post
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, facing away from the post
- Hold the band with your palms facing forward
- Step forward until the band is tight and hold for 5 seconds, then release
- Repeat 10 times
"Yoga can be really effective at reducing the effects (of hunchback posture)," says McSorley. "Yoga poses like cat-cow and the cobra should be integrated into your exercise routine."
Recommended hunchback yoga poses include:
3. Downward dog
4. Bow pose
5. Fish pose
Posture correctors can help reverse hunchback by reminding you to sit, stand and move with good posture. Over time, you'll retrain your muscles so you can hold proper posture without the corrector.
"Posture correctors work, especially if they are worn diligently," says Dr. Matt Tanneberg, DC, CSCS, who owns and operates Body Check Chiropractic & Sports Rehabilitation in Scottsdale, AZ. He works with elite athletes from the NFL, MLB, NHL, USA Track and Field, NCAA and high school. "The more consistent you can be with wearing it, the more significant change will follow."
Still, he cautions not to expect posture correctors and braces to do all the work for you: "There has to be a conscious mental effort to change the posture and work on keeping the shoulder blades down and back all the time, with or without the corrector."
The best posture correctors, he says, have straps that keep your head above your shoulders and shoulder blades retracted.
"Look for a posture corrector that is comfortable," he adds. "If you aren't comfortable wearing the posture corrector, then you won't keep wearing it."
You can install posture apps on your mobile phone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer. Some posture apps send reminders to sit up straight, while some offer workouts and yoga sessions designed to strengthen postural muscles and increase flexibility. Others use your phone's camera and other sensors to analyze your posture, while still others detect and warn you when you slouch.
Mindfulness and lifestyle changes
Practice mindfulness by continually monitoring and adjusting your posture.
"In addition to exercise, it is also essential to maintain good posture throughout the day," says Jones. "This means sitting up in chairs and avoiding slouching when standing or walking."
Invest in an ergonomic workstation that makes keeping good posture at work easier. Stay active to help avoid adopting poor muscle memory that contributes to a hunchback posture.
"Spend time in postures that promote a reversal of the hunchback position. Change your workstation ergonomics, and intentionally add activities that require you to spend time in a more upright and erect posture," says Maritato. "In an ideal world, we would spend as much time looking forward and up as we do looking down. The only way to make this happen is to intentionally design your work and social life activities around this ideal."
Correcting your posture can not only get rid of hunchback, it can offer long-term benefits.
"Benefits of good posture include living with less pain, tension and soreness, especially in the neck and upper back," says Dr. Tanneberg. "Proper posture will also increase your lung capacity. Think of your lungs like balloons. With bad posture, you are putting more and more pressure on your lungs, limiting how much they are able to expand during a deep inhale. Chronic slouching will lead to decreased lung capacity which, in turn, will decrease your athletic output."
Doctors, chiropractors and physical therapists
Medical professionals can assess the severity of your condition and outline an approved treatment plan. If you've developed a hunchback posture, it's always best to consult a doctor, chiropractor or physical therapist before you treat the condition yourself, especially since it's possible you have a more serious issue.
"Earlier is always better," says McSorley. "These kinds of problems don't happen overnight, they gradually progress. If you think you might be developing hunchback posture, talk to your physical therapist or doctor."
In addition, it's critical to seek medical attention if you suddenly develop hunchback posture, especially after an accident or injury.
Notable for its humped appearance, hunchback posture is an often-painful condition that can lead to serious long-term health consequences. If you're worried about hunchback, speak with your doctor, chiropractor or physical therapist to develop a treatment plan that combines exercise, yoga, posture correction and mindfulness. Over time, you'll likely be able to reverse your hunchback, stand up straight and enjoy the benefits of good posture.