We all have a complicated relationship with aging. It can be beautiful thing — retirement, wisdom, self-awareness — but it also poses health challenges we never expected. One of the most dreaded: the neck hump.
Often called a dowager’s hump or a buffalo hump (rather offensive, don’t you think?), a neck hump is known as kyphosis in the medical community. It describes an excessive rounding of the spine in the upper back, and it worsens with time. Once you start developing a curve as a result of slouching, you naturally compensate by straining your neck forward and tilting your head up to keep your gaze level. This accentuates the curve even more. And it’s not vain to want it fixed; kyphosis causes neck strain and back pain, among other issues. Though you’ll first need a doctor’s OK, practicing exercises and stretches at home may significantly reduce kyphosis and the problems it causes.
What is kyphosis?
There are three different kinds of kyphosis: postural, congenital, and Scheuermann’s. Postural, the one we’ll focus on, is the most common, and doctors define it as a spine that has curved 50 degrees or more. Congenital kyphosis occurs when certain back bones don’t develop properly, and it’s diagnosed at birth. Scheuermann’s kyphosis is a hereditary condition that appears between 10 and 15 years of age, and it describes a curved spine caused by vertebrae that have developed a wedge shape. (Normal vertebrae should have a rectangular shape.)
Most women with postural kyphosis are primarily concerned about appearance, but the detrimental health effects are just as important. Mild kyphosis may cause back pain or stiffness, fatigue, and tight hamstrings (those muscles at the back of your upper thighs). A more severe curvature can cause:
- Chronic back pain
- Limited mobility, including difficulty walking, looking up, or moving from sitting to standing
- Numbness or tingling in the legs
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- Acid reflux
- Difficulty swallowing
Note: Some sources state that kyphosis may cause urinary or fecal incontinence, the theory being that it compresses nerves in the spine. However, a 2016 study found that spinal curvature is not linked to pelvic floor disorders.
What causes a neck hump to form?
- Poor posture. When we slouch, our heads lean forward to compensate, making a neck hump more visible. “Too much time spent on devices where you are leaning forward and looking down are main contributors,” Dr. Liza says.
- Arthritis. “If you have arthritis that affects the lower neck, the head may automatically lean more forward in order to keep the arthritic areas in a more comfortable position,” Dr. Shah explains.
- Aging. “As you age, you may lose significantly more mass in the spine vertebra, either in the neck or the thoracic bones,” says Dr. Shah. (Thoracic bones make up the top half of your spine, from the neck to mid back.) “This causes posture changes which accentuate the hump.”
- Excess fat. “The hump that most people describe often comes from a prominence of the tissues where the neck meets the upper back,” he says. “This can happen because of extra tissue deposits from extra fat stores.”
Is kyphosis permanent?
It depends on the type of kyphosis and what caused it. “When a neck hump is caused by postural changes, you can correct it by improving your posture,” Dr. Liza says. “In cases of severe arthritis, there are permanent changes to the spine that can make the hump irreversible.” Dr. Shah points out that your doctor may still be able to treat a permanent change. “If the hump is as a result of structural changes at the bone level, medication may help,” he says. “In certain specific conditions, surgery may help realign the neck bones.”
If the hump is caused only by excess fat, regular exercise and postural stretches may help reduce the appearance. Keep in mind that you can’t spot-reduce fat; only a total reduction in body fat would help eliminate those extra fat deposits. “Even removal of the tissues directly with surgery can be helpful,” Dr. Shah adds.
What’s the best exercise to get rid of a hump on the neck?
“My favorite exercise to reduce the appearance of a neck hump is a pec stretch with neck extension,” says Dr. Liza. “With this exercise, you are looking up to stretch the muscles at the front of the neck that get tight with poor posture and causes anterior head carriage. Anterior head carriage is when your head moves in front of your shoulders causing misalignment. This posture results in a neck hump. So, by correcting it, you will minimize the appearance of a neck hump.”
To do: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Clasp your hands behind your back and slowly straighten out your elbows, gently squeezing your shoulder blades together (as far as they can go). Hold for five breaths, relax, and repeat two more times. If you feel comfortable, squeeze your shoulder blades together with more strength each round.
Note: Speak to a medical professional before attempting any exercise or stretch. “The most important thing about the hump is to identify the root cause,” says Dr. Shah. “If one has a hump, I would recommend following up with your physician to identify the underlying cause so that treatments have a high chance of working.”
“If you have severe arthritis, a neck injury, or any medical condition where you experience dizziness or lightheadedness, you shouldn’t perform this exercise,” Dr. Liza advises. “It’s always best to check in with a medical professional before starting any new exercise routine. For most people, this is a safe exercise to try at home if you don’t have any of the contraindicated conditions.”
What about those exercise routines for neck humps on YouTube?
Looking for a kyphosis routine you can follow at home? YouTube has a lot to offer, and many of the available tutorials are helpful. For safety, we recommend following a video created by a licensed medical professional, like this routine from the Milton Chiropractic Clinic in Cambridge, UK.
TK For an even simpler routine that requires no equipment, try this one, also from Milton Chiropractic Clinic.
Dr. Liza approves of the videos for practice at home. Dr. Shah agrees that a tutorial is helpful, but stresses that you should see a professional first. He also recommends a gradual approach — starting out light with this routine, and assessing your pain and symptoms after each session.
While you may not be able to get rick of a neck hump completely or quickly, a consistent treatment method should help reduce your symptoms and improve the appearance. Also smart: reducing the habits that cause poor posture in the first place. Use a standing desk to reduce your sitting time, or practice a simple morning stretch when you get out of bed. It’s never too late to start improving your quality of life.
This article was updated on January 11, 2023.