Have you heard the expression ‘dowager’s hump’? If so, you know you do not want to develop this condition. Dowager’s hump is the result of advanced osteoporosis. 

As we age, many people develop osteoporosis, a disease of the bones. Bones become very brittle and break easily. 

Bone is living tissue in a continuous state of regeneration. It is continually absorbed and substituted. New bone is created and old bone breaks down. Young people make new bone faster than old bone breaks down, which results in a rise in bone mass.

If you are a Baby Boomer, you are well past your peak bone production time. As we get older, bone mass vanishes faster than it’s made. This is where we get into trouble. Osteoporosis occurs when the formation of new bone doesn’t keep pace with the removal of old bone. 

Your risk of acquiring this condition is based on many factors including how much bone mass you acquired when young. The greater your peak bone mass during youth, the more bone you have to work with and the less likely you are to develop osteoporosis. 

Dowager’s Hump (Kyphosis)

You may have seen women and men who are bent over forward and, as a result, are looking at the ground when they walk. This is the outcome of advanced osteoporosis. Some sport a hump on their back.

Compression Fractures

The dowager’s hump develops as the result of vertebral compression fractures, which can occur when a person sneezes or bends over if the individual has advanced osteoporosis and brittle bones. The fractured vertebra develop a curved shape. When an individual experiences spinal and vertebral fractures it leads to this deformity, the dowager’s hump, and to lasting back pain and loss of height.

Wedge Fractures

Another fracture those with osteoporosis need be concerned about is the wedge fracture. This occurs when the front of the vertebra collapses, leading to the creation of a dowager’s hump. When the front breaks down and the backside remains in place this prompts the vertebra to tip forward and the spine becomes skewed. The dowager’s hump appears when the area above the fracture moves frontward. 

A domino effect takes place. When the vertebra tips to the front this puts added stress on other vertebrae, which can provoke another wedge fracture. Every time a fracture occurs, the person becomes more and more bent over. 

Who is in peril?

  • A woman’s bone concentration declines after menopause putting her at higher risk of acquiring osteoporosis. Those who have lacked calcium their entire life are at enhanced risk of fractures. As a precautionary measure, take calcium supplements and incorporate vitamin D into your diet, which fortify bones. 
  • Those with eating disorders are in jeopardy because of their low calcium intake.
  • If your predecessors had osteoporosis this, too, puts you in peril, because it may be an inherited condition.
  • Smoking and drinking contribute to bone loss so quit or cut back. Tobacco contributes to puny bones and alcohol interferes with calcium absorption.
  • Those who refuse to get off the couch and move are at higher risk because exercise is required if you want to maintain and continue to create healthy bones. 
  • Caucasian and Asian women are affected more than other ethnicities. Smaller people are also at greater risk because they have less bone density to work with. 
  • Other factors including thyroid problems can put you in jeopardy. Too much thyroid hormone can exacerbate bone loss. If you are taking medication for thyroid issues this ups your risk. 
  • Extended use of corticosteroid medications messes up bone-rebuilding process. Other medicines linked to osteoporosis include those used for treating depression, seizures, cancer, transplant rejection and gastric reflux.
  • When a person’s adrenal and parathyroid are too active, this is linked to the onset of osteoporosis. 
  • Those who have had gastrointestinal surgery (stomach reduction, gastric bypass or removal of part of the intestine) are at higher risk because the amount of surface area capable of absorbing calcium and other nutrients has become limited as a result of the surgery. 

Treatment 

The best way to treat dowager’s hump is not to get it in the first place. However, if a hump is developing or is already present and the individual is in pain there are procedures available, according to Dr. Andrew Weil.

Dr. Weil discussed treatment with Victoria Maizes, M.D., executive director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. Dr. Maizes said there is treatment available for those who are suffering pain as a result of vertebral fractures called vertebroplasty. This entails injecting a type of ‘bone cement’ into the vertebra to stabilize them. However, the fracture must be less than six months old. 

Kyphoplasty is another procedure similar to vertebroplasty utilized on those suffering compression fractures in the lower part of the spine. This procedure has the capacity to restore bone height in the vertebra, reducing the spinal abnormality.

Exercises

To prevent a dowager’s hump and other problems with the back, engage in specific exercises including the chest stretch. 

Lie on your back on a mat. Bend your knees; your feet are flat on the floor. Place both hands at the base of the skill, palms facing upward. Gently press your elbows into the floor. 

This pulls under the armpits and across the chest. The ribs and shoulder blades should remain against the mat while executing this stretch. Release the elbows from the stretch and then repeat.

Another good exercise is the lateral row, using an exercise band. Sit on a mat. The back must be straight. Both legs are extended to the front. If you have constricted hamstrings, marginally bend the knees.  Wrap the band around your feet and hold the ends of the band with both hands. Pull your hands toward your waist. Your palms face each other. Pull some more on the band. As you do this, the elbows move to the back and shoulder blades draw together. Repeat this 10 times. It’s an excellent back exercise. 

Yoga postures are good for thwarting back deformities. For example, clasp your hands behind your back. Now pull the arms away from the back. Shoulder blades move together each toward each other. Any exercise you do that makes the back and spine stronger and straighter is beneficial. 

Cindi Pearce is a graduate of Ohio University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in journalism back in the dark ages (aka before computers, the Internet and cell phones. Heck, before electric typewriters!) A former newspaper writer/columnist and photographer, her fiction and non-fiction work has been published in national magazines. A full-time freelance writer, as well as an avid gardener, an artist and yoga aficionado, Cindi is a Baby Boomer and proud of it. She has survived the gnarly challenges of the sandwich generation and lived to tell the tale. Cindi has somehow managed to stay married to her first and only husband for nearly 35 years. They are the parents of three grown children and the grandparents of one. She has five large, raucous dogs, five acres to mow on her beloved zero turn mower, and gets the biggest kick out of making people laugh on Facebook. (P.S. She refuses to cut her hair short.)