As much as 40 per cent of elderly adults has hunched backs that create a hump-like appearance . Poor posture is widespread in today’s world, but it’s not just among the elderly.
You will now see that many young people have curved upper backs, otherwise known as thoracic kyphosis.
Aspects of modern life, like using a smartphone, working at a computer and slouching against the back of a chair are common factors that play into it.
While everyone is susceptible and incorrect posture has virtually become a norm, the consequences are more severe than you may have thought.
In this post, we’ll talk about hunchback and why you can’t ignore this posture if you have it. Then, we’ll explain how to reverse it with exercises that straighten your posture.
Please note that the purpose of this post is to fix thoracic kyphosis caused by muscle imbalances and not structural issues such as arthritis, bone deformities, osteoporosis, disc degeneration or Scheuermann’s kyphosis. If your thoracic kyphosis is caused by any of these issues please seek the relevant health professional.
What is Thoracic Kyphosis?
Thoracic kyphosis is the technical term for the common “hunchback” position, where your upper back is rounded and your chest caves inward.
Rather than standing up tall and looking straight as with normal healthy posture, a person with thoracic kyphosis will be bent over forward and will have to tilt their heads upward to maintain a normal line of sight.
The word “thoracic” comes from the root word “thorax,” which is the biological word meaning “chest.”
The thoracic spine is the region of your spine that sits behind your chest and inside your rib cage, running from the nape of your neck to your abdomen.
“Kyphosis” means the excessive outward curvature of your spine, so together, “thoracic kyphosis” describes the hunchback position that involves both your chest and back.
Symptoms of Thoracic Kyphosis
The good news about thoracic kyphosis is that in most cases it can be reversed.
You want to fix it as early on as possible because the longer you have it, the harder it is to fix, and the more problems it can cause.
Here are a few reasons why you should take this postural dysfunction seriously.
If you don’t fix thoracic kyphosis, you’re predisposed to other posture problems, including hyperlordosis — excessive lumbar curvature.
When your upper back is rounded, your lower back is more likely to round in the opposite direction, causing your spine to over excessively shape like an “S.”
Your vertebrae are designed to stack on top of each other in a vertical column. When there’s excessive curvature throughout the spine, the discs between each vertebra have to absorb a lot more shock.
This raises your risk for spinal health issues because the increased “load” on discs can restrict the blood flow that keeps them healthy .
Neck Pain & Forward Head Posture
To compensate for a hunched back, you have to crane your neck forward to keep your head upright. Your back is meant to help bear the weight of your head, but with a forward head posture, your neck carries the full brunt of the weight.
In fact, 1 or 2 inches of forward head posture can double or triple the weight load on your cervical spine, which is the portion of your spine in your neck .
Like hyperlordosis, the extra weight and unnatural position puts your spinal health at risk. It also causes muscle tension in the neck, which can lead to neck pain and headaches.
It Affects Your Appearance and Confidence
Plus, there’s the reality that thoracic kyphosis doesn’t look good on anyone, and not looking your best affects the way you feel.
Literally, the way you hold yourself on a physical level translates to the way you hold yourself as an individual, in terms of your confidence and self-worth.
Nobody wants to have this kind of posture especially when you are still young. Fixing your posture can help you put your best foot forward in life.
It Gets Worse With Age
As you age, thoracic kyphosis predisposes you to neurological issues caused by restricted blood flow to the brain.
It’s shown to be linked to an increased risk of falls and fractures in older adults because of the way it affects mobility .
The longer you have thoracic kyphosis the more likely you’ll take it into your later years and the worse it will get.
How Do You Know You Have Thoracic Kyphosis?
It’s quite easy to tell if you have thoracic kyphosis. You may remember a time where your posture was relatively healthy but with excessive use of technology, your posture got worse and worse.
Thoracic kyphosis is just one of many posture issues you can have. You may just have rounded shoulders but not kyphosis, and you can tell because your palms face behind you when you stand up straight with your arms hanging down.
When your shoulders round forward, it causes your shoulder blades to stick out on your upper back instead of laying flat along your back.
This can cause a slight hunchback appearance, but not the same as kyphosis.
To detect thoracic kyphosis, you need to look specifically at the spine, and the best way to do that is to compare it to a wall.
Test for Thoracic Kyphosis
- Stand 1 foot away from a wall, with your back facing it.
- Lean your back against the wall and try to make your entire spine flat against it, from the nape of your neck to your tailbone.
- Avoid arching your lower back to get your upper spine against the wall. Keep a neutral position.
If you can’t place the length of your spine on the wall because of its “C” shape at the top, you likely have thoracic kyphosis.
What is the Common Cause for Thoracic Kyphosis?
As we discussed the most likely cause is holding your body with incorrect posture for long periods.
Thoracic kyphosis involves an imbalance between opposing muscle groups in your chest and back. Typically, they get this way over time when you continually maintain this rounded upper back position.
When your upper back is hunched as you slouch in a chair or stoop over your smartphone, the muscles in your chest are shortened and contracted, while the muscles in your upper back are long and overextended.
Over time, your muscles adapt to these positions.
Because your chest muscles are now tight they cause your shoulders to pull forward and your chest to cave in. Meanwhile, your upper back becomes weak and the muscles are not strong enough to counteract this forward pull.
Your chest muscles stay contracted and shortened as long as you aren’t stretching them out enough. It only takes about 20 minutes of holding a position before your muscles develop tension and start to constrict your skeletal system so that it stays in a certain posture.
To fix your posture you need to reverse these muscle imbalances.
Muscles Imbalances That Play Into Thoracic Kyphosis
Specifically, your pecs, upper abs and anterior intercostal muscles are the ones that become shortened when you have thoracic kyphosis. Creating length in these muscle groups out will help.
The weak, overextended muscles are the thoracic erector spinae group. All along your spine, you have small stabilizing muscles that make up your erector spinae muscle group.
The thoracic erector spinae supports the thoracic spine, and it’s virtually dormant in people who have thoracic kyphosis.
How to Fix Thoracic Kyphosis
To fix your posture, you need to take a multi-pronged approach (the video above has a good overview of all these steps).
We’ve rounded up the exercises and practices that will reverse your hunched back, but they only work in combination.
The first step is to perform self-massage on the tight muscles to remove any chronic tightness. This is known as releasing the muscles. The next step is to start stretching these same muscle groups out.
The final step is to then strengthen the weak muscles that contribute to thoracic kyphosis.
Please note that these methods are meant to to fix thoracic kyphosis caused by muscle imbalances. It is also assumed that your thoracic kyphosis is not so excessive that there is pain or major mobility issues. If your thoracic kyphosis is caused by structural issues or causes you extreme pain, please seek help from a health professional.
1. Self-Massage Techniques
Compressing and massaging the muscle tissue around your thoracic spine can help soften it so that you can reverse the curved position.
Remember, it’s your muscles holding your spine in its current posture. When there’s excessive spinal curvature, the muscles are in an unnatural position that strains them with tension.
Here are some release exercises that can help you reverse a hunched back:
1. Peanut Ball Upper Back Release
A peanut ball is a massage ball you can buy or make yourself using two lacrosse or tennis balls. You can put 2 balls inside a sock and tie it tight so that the balls stay together, or you can use strong tape to tape them together.
- Lie on your back with the peanut ball between your shoulder blades, with each ball on either side of your spine.
- Lift your hips off the floor just enough to shift more of your weight onto the peanut ball.
- Shift your torso up and down just slightly as you feel the balls compress the muscles on either side of your thoracic spine.
- This may be painful, but the pain lessens with daily practice as the muscles loosen.
2. Massage Ball Pectoralis Release
Use a massage ball to release your chest muscles involved in forward hunching. You’re aiming for the muscles on either side between your shoulder and sternum, and there are multiple ways to do it.
The most gentle way is to use your opposite hand; hold the ball and massage the opposite pectoralis muscles.
To apply more pressure using your body weight, try facing a wall and rolling the ball against it instead of holding the ball.
For maximal pressure and release, lay on your stomach and put the ball under you, on your pectoralis muscle. Use a small circular motion to loosen up the pectoralis muscles, one side at a time.
3. Massage Ball Abdominal Release
Besides a tight chest, tight abs also lock a rounded spine in place. You can release your abs gently using a massage ball.
- Lay on your stomach with your chest up and your elbows supporting your upper body.
- Place a massage ball under the top of your abdominal muscles on one side.
- Adjust the pressure on your abs by shifting your body weight. Make sure the pressure isn’t too much–you want just enough to feel the muscles release. Too much pressure can cause damage.
- Slightly roll the ball up and down along your abs and then move it to the other side.
2. Stretching and Mobility Exercises
Stretching your spine helps release its fixed position by mobilizing your joints. It also improves the health of your spine by increasing blood circulation.
Stretching on a daily basis can make your spine more flexible, and as a result, more “fixable.” Because your chest is overly tight with a hunched back, stretching your chest muscles is also an important part of reversing thoracic kyphosis.
Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds, and try to repeat 3 times a day.
1. Upper Back Arch Lean
For this stretch, you’re going to force your upper back to flex in the opposite direction of your kyphosis, by leaning your hands into a wall.
- Position your hands overhead on a wall
- Lean into your hands as you drop your head through your arms and push your hips back
- Feel your upper back contract and your chest stretch open
- Keep your lower back in a neutral position; don’t “cheat” by bending your lumbar instead of your thoracic spine.
2. Thoracic Extension
In this stretch, you use a foam roller to force your upper back to arch back in the correct direction. It’s a little more intense than the previous arch, because the foam roller applies more force to the bend.
The video above shows how to do this move (2nd move in the video) and also a few other beneficial spine mobilizations.
- Lay on your back with a foam roller under your shoulder blades
- Place your hands behind your head, letting your head act as an opposing weight
- Keep your buttocks on the floor and keep your lumbar spine in a neutral position as best as you can
- Let your thoracic spine bend over the foam roller as your chest opens up
- Avoid flaring your rib cage out to cause the arch. Try to isolate the arch in your thoracic spine.
3. Abdominal Stretch
Loosening chronically tight abs can help release your spine into a more neutral position. This stretch, known as “cobra pose” in yoga, not only lengthens your abdominals, but also your chest muscles.
As a backbend posture, it forces your thoracic spine to reverse its kyphosis.
- Lie on your stomach with your legs and feet together.
- Put your palms on the floor beneath your shoulders, keeping your elbows tucked in.
- Lift your upper body off the floor as high as you can without lifting your hips.
- Focus on lifting your chest toward the ceiling and bending at the upper back.
- Aim to feel the stretch in your upper back instead of your lower back. Your lower back should bend, but don’t allow it to take on the entire backbend.
4. Chest Stretch
This simple chest/pec stretch helps lengthen your shortened chest muscles and train your upper back to reverse its kyphosis. It’s easy to do, as it only involves a doorway.
- Stand in a doorway and put one hand on either side of the door frame.
- Align your forearms, from your elbows to your palms, along the door frame.
- Step one foot in front and lean forward to feel the stretch in your chest and the fronts of your shoulders.
If you find that your chest is particularly tight, you may want to look at our page on how to stretch and release the pecs.
Strength Training Exercises
Strengthening your overextended back muscles causes them to contract so they can help keep your spine upright instead of allowing it to curve.
These strength training exercises are easy to do at home, and you should aim to do them every other day.
Supermans help lengthen your abs and tighten your back muscles. It’s a bodyweight exercise, so all you need is a mat.
- Lie on your stomach and stretch your arms straight overhead.
- Lengthen your spine, aiming for a neutral position with minimal curvature.
- In one movement, raise your arms, legs and chest off the floor as high as you can.
- Hold for 2 seconds and then slowly lower everything down to complete one rep.
If it’s too difficult at first, you can do supermans with your arms lifting by your sides instead of overhead.
2. T-Hold, Y-Hold and Prone Cobra
T-holds and y-holds involve holding light dumbbells (2 to 5 pounds) and lifting your upper body. It’s similar to supermans, but it’s more challenging because there’s added weight and you’re lifting only your upper body instead of your legs and back.
If you find this exercise too difficult you can also try it without weights.
- Lie on a mat with your stomach down and a dumbbell in each hand.
- Lift your chest from your thoracic spine. Allow your lower back to curve but try not to bend from it directly.
- Hold your arms out to a “T” for 3 to 5 seconds. Slowly lower and repeat for more reps.
- Hold your arms out to a “Y” or “V” position overhead for another set of reps. This is more challenging.
3. Wall Press
This strengthening exercise does a great job targeting the inner spinal muscles. By tightening them, you help your spinal column align straighter.
- Sit or stand with your hips and back against a wall.
- Keep your spine as straight as possible.
- Bring your arms up on either side of your head and bend your elbows at 90 degrees.
- Place your arms against the wall or as close to it as possible.
- Expand your chest and squeeze your shoulder blades together as you raise your arms straight overhead.
- Bring your arms back down to 90 degrees “L” shapes.
- Repeat for more reps.
- You should feel the muscles working close to your spine, between your shoulder blades.
Put a Stop to Underlying Habits that Caused Thoracic Kyphosis
The section above laid out several exercises that help reverse thoracic kyphosis, but you can’t fix it without tackling the root cause.
That means stopping the bad habits that caused thoracic kyphosis in the first place by training your body to stay in that position. Thoracic kyphosis happens because of bad habits, so without changing those for good, thoracic kyphosis is always around the corner.
Here are some tips:
- Avoid slouching at work by sitting on a stability ball chair or a kneeling chair and taking frequent breaks to get your blood flowing. A standing desk may also be helpful.
- Sit back in your chair with your feet flat on the floor. Consider getting a lumbar support for your chair.
- Avoid bad posture habits in your sleep by sleeping on your back, which helps straighten out your spine.
- Think about your posture throughout the day, or make a note on your phone or at your desk to remind you to sit and stand up straight.
- Besides slouching, thoracic kyphosis is also worsened by doing too many abdominal crunches without stretching your abs or balancing them out with upper back training exercises. While you’re working on fixing thoracic kyphosis, avoid doing crunches for the time being so you can let your abs lengthen out.
- Once you’ve corrected thoracic kyphosis, you need to actively prevent it from recurring. Take note of any habits that cause you to slouch and correct them.
Continue doing the exercises described in this post to counter any slouching and promote muscle balance. Be persistent. It took a long time for your body to become like this and it won’t be fixed overnight.
If you have thoracic kyphosis, you’ve probably struggled with your posture for a long time.
A hunched-back posture needs to be addressed with corrective exercises, so start today and save yourself the negative effects of bad posture down the line.