Kyphosis Treatment & Management

Updated: Nov 03, 2015
  • Author: R Carter Cassidy, MD; Chief Editor: Jason H Calhoun, MD, FACS  more...
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Medical Therapy

Medical therapy for kyphosis consists of exercise, medication, and bracing. [14] Physical therapy, which usually consists of extension-focused activities, may be of some benefit; however, this has not been proven. [15, 19]

Medications to treat discomfort associated with kyphosis should be limited to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and, possibly, muscle relaxants. Narcotics should be avoided as long-term treatment of pain associated with kyphosis.

If a patient has an active infection, such as diskitis or vertebral osteomyelitis, appropriate antibiotics based on culture results should be started as soon as possible.

Bracing is effective in some skeletally immature patients with Scheuermann kyphosis. However, the correction obtained may diminish as patients approach and pass skeletal maturity. Treatment with a Milwaukee brace improved deformity in 76 of 120 (63%) patients who wore the brace regularly. Brace treatment seemed to be least effective when the curve was more than 74° at the beginning of treatment. [20] Bradford et al reported modest success in treating adults with a brace, with some correction of their deformities. [18] As far as the present authors are aware, no other reports of brace treatment in adults with kyphosis have been published.


Surgical Therapy

Surgical planning for kyphosis is crucial to a successful operation. The goal of surgery is to correct the deformity and remove any neural compression, if present. The correction can be done anteriorly, posteriorly, or both. Posterior surgery is most commonly described and performed. Posterior arthrodesis for kyphosis can be an extensive operation, with many spinal segments typically included in the fusion mass. [21] This procedure is most helpful for long, sweeping, flexible curves. In cases of rigid deformity, osteotomies can be performed to improve the correction. Combined anterior-posterior surgery may be required for severe deformities. [22]

Smith-Peterson osteotomy, pedicle subtraction osteotomy, and vertebral column resection

Specific osteotomies are aggressive facetectomies at each level, Smith-Peterson osteotomy, pedicle subtraction osteotomy, and vertebral column resection.

Smith-Peterson osteotomy is wedge-shaped resection of posterior elements from the pedicles of the superior vertebra to the pedicles of the inferior vertebra. When closed posteriorly, the spine hinges on the disk space; therefore, an open, mobile disk is crucial to the success of this procedure. Smith-Peterson osteotomy can be performed at 1 or multiple levels, if necessary. This allows for significant correction, approximately 1 mm of resection yielding 1° of lordosis. [3] Some recommend anterior diskectomy and fusion with Smith-Peterson osteotomy to decrease the pseudarthrosis rate. [23, 24]

Pedicle-subtraction osteotomy is relatively aggressive resection of a wedge of bone, including posterior elements, the pedicles, and the vertebral body. [25]

Vertebral column resection entails removal of posterior elements, the vertebral body, and adjacent disk material. Both anterior and posterior fixation are often required because of the destabilizing effect of this resection.

As kyphosis becomes notably sharp and/or focal, increasingly aggressive techniques are required for correction. Cho et al demonstrated that the corrections per segment were 10.7° for Smith-Peterson osteotomy and 31.7° for pedicle subtraction osteotomy. [26] Procedures involving the anterior column are usually followed by posterior instrumentation and fusion.

Anterior surgery

Anterior surgery can include single or multiple diskectomies to increase the flexibility of the spine, followed by a posterior arthrodesis. The transthoracic approach allows for decompression of the neural elements before the spine is corrected with posterior instrumentation. Anterior-only fusion is most useful in relatively short and focal kyphosis, such as posttraumatic or postinfectious kyphosis. [17]

A novel technique for single-curve scoliosis may also be used to correct kyphosis. The bone-on-bone technique involves an anterior-only approach to perform complete annulectomy and diskectomy at each level in the Cobb angle of the deformity. Then, using sequential compression along 2 rods, which are affixed with a staple and 2 screws in each vertebral level, the surgeon brings the bony endplates into immediate contact. Substantial correction can be achieved in this manner. [27]


Preoperative Details

Patients with kyphosis may have subtle neurologic abnormalities that are easily missed during examination. MRI of the affected area can help in determining if decompression is necessary before instrumentation and correction of the deformity.

Selection of the fusion level is important. The proximal level is usually the most cranial vertebra rotated into the kyphosis. In the distal aspect, the fusion is extended to the last lordotic segment. Recommended correction should not exceed 50%, to prevent junctional kyphosis at the ends of the fusion. [28]


Intraoperative Details

The spinal cord and its roots are at risk during correction of kyphosis, especially when the canal is stenotic or when the cord is tethered at the apex of the kyphosis. In these situations, consider performing anterior decompression before the posterior arthrodesis. The cord is also at risk for ischemia if blood flow is altered with the change in spinal alignment. [3]

Manipulation of the spinal cord, especially during osteotomies in the thoracic spine, should be avoided. Evidence suggests that the lower lumbar roots are vulnerable during pedicle subtraction osteotomy, more than the upper lumbar roots are. [29] Pay careful attention to the removal of posterior bone and ligament, which may buckle into the canal as the osteotomy is closed. Thorough central decompression is recommended to help prevent neurologic compromise. Subluxation of the spine can also occur when an osteotomy is being closed; therefore, intraoperative radiography is essential to rapidly identify and correct subluxation.

Neural monitoring may be helpful for identifying correctable neurologic injury before the case is concluded. Monitoring of somatosensory and motor evoked potential can be helpful in detecting reversible neural injury due to stretching during correction of deformity or misplaced devices, for example. However, neural monitoring may not be useful with isolated root injuries. [23, 24] A wake-up test can also be performed to assess the patient's gross motor function after the deformity is corrected.

Blood loss can be clinically significant during correction of kyphosis, especially if anterior procedures and large osteotomies are being performed. [30] Bleeding should be controlled at every step of the operation to keep overall loss to a minimum. Clinically significant blood loss can cause hypotension and potentially injure the spinal cord, myocardium, and/or retina.

In terms of intraoperative considerations related to instrumentation, ensure that the substantial cantilever force applied to the spine with posterior instrumentation is spread over multiple levels. In the thoracic spine, sublaminar wires, hooks, or screws can be used. With hooks, multiple claws on each side are usually recommended. Some surgeons have applied thoracic pedicle screws to spread the force throughout each vertebra that receives instrumentation. Pedicle screws are also useful with aggressive osteotomies, which tend to destabilize the spine. Segmental fixation increases the surgeon's control over the coronal plane, where a deformity can coexist with a sagittal deformity. [3, 31, 32]

In the lumbar spine, pedicle screws are most often used for the reasons just mentioned. Osteoporosis should be addressed with multiple points of posterior fixation, and maintain a low threshold for performing concomitant anterior fusion. This approach may help to prevent implant pull-out or postoperative collapse and loss of correction.


Postoperative Details

Patients usually require clinically significant pain medication after undergoing correction of kyphosis, especially extensive procedures. The amount of narcotics given should be carefully titrated because the drugs may cause ileus, atelectasis, and/or difficulty in mobilizing the patient after surgery.

The patient should be monitored for anemia, as blood losses can be substantial. Electrolytes should be checked as well, as notable fluid shifts are common in the perioperative period.

Careful postoperative neurologic examination is important to identify any changes from the patient's preoperative status. [33]



Standing posteroanterior and lateral full-length radiographs of the spine should be obtained as soon as possible after surgery and serially for follow-up. Full-length scoliosis films obtained yearly allow evaluation of the patient's curve over time. Comparison of the postoperative and follow-up images with the preoperative images helps in defining the amount of correction achieved and in determining if correction is being lost over time. Loss of correction should prompt a careful evaluation for implant pull-out or breakage, for subsidence of an anterior strut (if any), or for the lack of adequate fusion mass. [34]

Postoperative measurements of the C7 plumb line should be at or within a few centimeters of S1.



Possible complications of treatment range from superficial wound infection to complete neurologic injury. The nervous system is at risk with correction because of direct manipulation, traction, or compression resulting from the altered anatomy of the spine. In addition, blood flow to the cord or roots can be impeded. Neurologic changes are most often transient. However, transience cannot be assumed if a new deficit is identified postoperatively. Imaging of the spine should be done to identify any reversible cause of the deficit, and, if identified, the cause should be addressed rapidly. Removing the fixation and allowing the kyphosis to settle may help relieve cord compromise.

Intraoperative blood loss can be clinically significant. [30] Blood losses put the patient at risk for transfusion, hypotension, ischemia to critical tissues, and potentially death. Therefore, careful attention to blood loss is essential.

Mechanical complications are possible as well. Pseudarthrosis can occur, especially with long fusions, inadequate support of the anterior column, and fusions at the thoracolumbar junction. [35] Other risk factors in long fusions to treat scoliosis include age greater than 55 years, [36] thoracolumbar kyphosis greater than 20°, and fusion of more than 12 levels. [37] Implant failure can lead to loss of correction, especially at the proximal portion of the instrumentation. Patients with osteoporosis are at somewhat increased risk of implant failure or even fracture at levels contiguous with the fusion mass. In some individuals, posterior instrumentation can be prominent and cause discomfort. Overcorrection of the deformity (>50%) and inadequate selection of fusion levels can predispose a patient to junctional kyphosis at the proximal and distal extent of the fusion mass. [28]

Postoperative wound infections can be superficial or deep. As with any surgery, use of prophylactic antibiotics and sterile technique are imperative to lower the incidence of postoperative wound infection. Maximizing the patient's nutritional status before surgery can also help reduce the risk of infection.


Outcome and Prognosis

Results of surgical correction vary depending on the etiology of the deformity.

Malcolm et al reviewed 48 patients and achieved a deformity correction rate of 26% and at least partial pain relief in 98% of patients with posttraumatic kyphosis with anterior and/or posterior fusions. [11]

Lehmer et al studied 38 patients who underwent a single-stage closing wedge procedure to treat posttraumatic and postlaminectomy kyphosis. They obtained a mean correction of 35° with 3 pseudarthroses. Eight of 14 preoperative neurologic deficits improved, and 76% of the patients treated said they would undergo the surgery again if needed. [38]

Kostuick achieved fusion in 36 of 37 patients receiving anterior-only fusion. Pain significantly improved in 78%, and 3 of 8 patients with paraparesis improved. [39]

Outcomes in Scheuermann kyphosis are similar to those just presented, though the amount of correction achieved may not be correlated with pain relief.

In a series of patients who were treated with a posterior Harrington rod, all had pain relief. However, 16 of 22 lost correction. [18]

Lowe and Kasten used posterior instrumentation to achieve a mean correction of 85° down to 43°. [28]

With anterior-posterior and posterior–only surgery, Speck and Chopin gained an average deformity correction of 40%, and 28 of 45 patients were pain-free. However, 4 patients had infections, 9 lost more than 10° of correction, and 1 person had Brown-Sequard syndrome postoperatively. [40]

Investigators have evaluated advanced techniques, such as osteotomies and new instrumentation. Bridwell et al reported a series of 33 patients treated with pedicle subtraction osteotomy for sagittal imbalance. [23, 24] The C7 plumb line improved from 16.6 cm positive to 1.7 cm. Pain and Oswestry disability indexes significantly improved. Eight patients had pseudarthrosis, and 1 had a wound infection. No permanent neurologic injuries occurred.

Video-assisted thoracoscopic release followed by posterior arthrodesis has been successful. In one study, deformity correction was 84.8° to 45.3° in patients with thoracic kyphosis associated with Scheuermann disease. Mean loss of correction was 1.6°, and 1 hook pulled out. No cases of junctional kyphosis were observed. [41]

In a retrospective study, anterior-posterior correction was compared with posterior-only instrumentation with all pedicle screws. The posterior-only group had significant improvement in terms of blood loss, correction of deformity, and number of complications. [42]


Future and Controversies

As surgical implants and techniques have improved, so have results of surgery. Patient safety should be the foremost goal of the treating physician. Future prospective trials will help in defining the best way to care for patients with clinically significant sagittal imbalances.