The two basic types of spinal deformities are kyphosis and scoliosis. These conditions usually develop during childhood or adolescence and worsen over time. However, they may develop in older people solely as the result of degenerative changes that occur with age.

Senior woman - MasterfileKyphosis

This condition is characterized by extensive flexion (bending forward) of the spine. It usually affects the upper back (the thoracic spine) but may also occur in the neck or lower back. Thoracic kyphosis is sometimes referred to as dowager’s hump, humpback, or hunchback. Kyphosis is particularly common in older women and can result from disk degeneration (in which the disks lose moisture and shrink), vertebral fractures due to osteoporosis, or both.

Severe thoracic kyphosis reduces the amount of space available for the lungs and other organs, potentially leading to breathing problems or a protruding abdomen. It can also lead to difficulty finding clothes that fit properly.


Defined as an abnormal sideways bend to the back, scoliosis is caused by a twisting of the spine. It can occur at any location in the spine. The amount of pain caused by scoliosis usually depends on the degree of the deformity; more pronounced bends tend to be more painful. Most scoliosis in our society develops in childhood; however, it may progress later in life because of disk degeneration. Scoliosis occurring from degenerative changes alone tends to create fewer problems than childhood scoliosis, however the condition can progress in adults as well (see Adult Scoliosis).

Publication Review By: Lee H. Riley III, M.D. and Suzanne M. Jan de Beur, M.D.

Published: 03 Aug 2011

Last Modified: 18 Nov 2011