In order for the spine to function optimally, it needs to have its natural and healthy curves in place; these make the spine stronger, more flexible, and better able to handle mechanical stress incurred during movement. Continue reading to find out more about the spine’s natural and unnatural curvature types.
There are natural and unnatural spinal curves; when the spine’s healthy curves are lost, they are replaced by unhealthy curves, and this is contrary to the spine’s design. A loss of healthy spinal curves affects the spine, its surroundings, and the entire body.
Before getting to the different spinal curvature types, let’s talk about why the spine is curved in the first place.
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A healthy spine has its natural curves in place and its vertebrae aligned in a straight and neutral position.
A healthy spine will appear straight when viewed from the front and/or back and will take on a soft ‘S’ shape when viewed from the sides, and this is because of the spine’s healthy curves.
The spine has three main sections: the cervical spine (neck), thoracic spine (middle/upper back), and the lumbar spine (lower back).
The spine’s healthy curves make it more flexible, better able to absorb and distribute mechanical stress, and stronger, like a coiled spring.
Spinal health is important not only because it allows us to stand upright and practice good posture, but also because it protects important organs, allows us to engage in a wide range of flexible movements, and the spinal cord within works with the brain to form the central nervous system (CNS).
So what makes some spinal curves healthy, and others unhealthy?
The spine is curved at each of its main sections, and the health of each curve is dependent upon the health of the others.
There are two main spinal curvature types that can be healthy or unhealthy.
The degrees of lordosis and kyphosis can vary, but if a person’s lordosis or kyphosis falls beyond a normal and healthy range, the curves have become excessive and problematic.
A healthy range of cervical lordosis would fall within a range of 20 to 40 degrees; a healthy range of lumbar lordosis falling between 40 and 60 degrees.
Thoracic kyphosis has a healthy range of between 20 and 40 degrees.
If a person’s degree of lordosis becomes excessive, it has become an unhealthy spinal curve, commonly referred to as hyperlordosis, and excessive kyphosis is referred to as hyperkyphosis.
So healthy curves can become unhealthy curves if they are excessive, and there are a number of causes behind the development of an unhealthy spinal curve from injury and trauma to spinal degeneration and the presence of an underlying spinal condition.
The cervical spine acts as the bridge between the brain and the rest of the body, has to support the weight of the neck and head, and enable the head’s ability to turn from side to side and look up and down; if the spine loses its healthy lordosis, it can disrupt the positioning of the head and strain the cervical spine, its supportive muscles, and nearby nerves.
If the lumbar spine’s lordosis becomes excessive, it can cause what’s referred to as a swayback appearance: the buttocks and abdomen protrude excessively due to the excessive kyphotic curve in the lower back.
The thoracic spine is the largest spinal section so is vulnerable to a number of spinal conditions/issues, and if hyperkyphosis is diagnosed, this is also referred to as roundback, after the postural change it causes: the upper back and shoulders become excessively rounded forward.
So as you can see, one of the most-noticeable effects of an unnatural spinal curve is postural deviation caused by the uneven forces introduced to the spine, its surrounding muscles and nerves, and the entire body.
I mentioned earlier that a common cause for the development of an unhealthy type of spinal curve is the presence of an underlying spinal condition, so let’s explore a common structural spinal condition that causes a loss of the spine’s healthy curves, and what can be done about it.
As such a highly-prevalent spinal condition, scoliosis is the ideal spinal condition to explore in the context of discussing spinal curvature types; scoliosis involves the development of an unnatural sideways-bending and rotating spinal curve.
Because a scoliotic curve doesn’t just bend to the side unnaturally, but also rotates, it’s a complex 3-dimensional condition.
In addition, scoliosis, and many conditions that involve the development of unhealthy spinal curves, is a progressive condition, meaning its nature is to get worse over time.
As scoliosis progresses, the scoliotic curve is going to get larger, more rigid, and less responsive to treatment, but there’s hope; unnatural spinal curves can be treated without surgery, and while there are never treatment guarantees, when scoliosis is diagnosed and treated early, there are fewer limits to what can be achieved.
But how is a structural spinal curve that’s problematic addressed?
Even within scoliosis, there are different types of scoliotic curves that can develop, so let’s take a minute to explore what that means for condition severity and treatment.
Part of diagnosing scoliosis involves comprehensively assessing conditions so they can be further classified based on key patient/condition variables: patient age, condition severity, curvature location, and condition type.
Type is determined by causation, and the majority of scoliosis cases are idiopathic, meaning the cause is unknown; in fact, approximately 80 percent of known diagnosed scoliosis cases are idiopathic, and the remaining 20 percent are associated with known causes.
Neuromuscular scoliosis, degenerative scoliosis, and congenital scoliosis are considered atypical because they have known causes and can present with atypical spinal curve types.
Neuromuscular scoliosis curves tend to be more rigid and severe, and treatment has to focus on the neuromuscular condition causing the scoliosis, which complicates the treatment process.
Degenerative scoliosis affects older adults and is caused by a combination of natural age-related spinal degeneration and the cumulative effect of certain lifestyle choices, so degenerative scoliosis curves tend to become increasingly unstable because of degenerative changes.
Congenital scoliosis is a rare form and is caused by spinal malformations that occur as the spine develops in utero; these are also complex cases that commonly present with additional congenital abnormalities.
In typical cases of idiopathic scoliosis, the curve will bend to the right, away from the heart, known as dextroscoliosis, but in atypical cases with an underlying pathology, curves can bend to the left, towards the heart, making them more severe and complex to treat, known as levoscoliosis.
When I see a left-bending curve in an X-ray, this is a red flag for me that the case is going to be particularly severe, and a condition’s underlying cause has to be the focus of treatment so it complicates the process.
A healthy spine has its natural curves in place and its vertebrae aligned, and a healthy spine is key to quality of life because of its roles in posture, appearance, movement, sensation, and brain-body communication.
If a spine loses one or more of its healthy curves, they are replaced by unhealthy curves, and this disrupts the spine’s biomechanics and the body’s overall symmetry; one of the main signs that an unnatural spinal curve has developed include postural changes.
As scoliosis progresses, for example, its disruption to the body’s overall symmetry becomes more overt and can include uneven shoulders, shoulder blades, hips, the development of a rib arch, and in addition, unnatural spinal curves also disrupt balance, coordination, and gait.
Even within healthy spinal curves, there is a natural variety of sizes that aren’t considered problematic, but if a person’s level of lordosis or kyphosis falls beyond a healthy range, disruptions to spinal health and function can occur.
When it comes to preserving the spine’s healthy curves naturally, a large part of this is leading a spine-friendly lifestyle that limits natural age-related spinal degeneration.
When it comes to the development of an unnatural scoliotic curve, or an excessive lordotic or kyphotic curve, a proactive conservative treatment approach can help work towards restoring as much of the spine’s natural curves and function as possible.
Here at the Scoliosis Reduction Center, my patients benefit from a proactive chiropractic-centered treatment approach because I feel this method of restoring as much of the spine’s healthy curves as possible offers patients the best possible quality of life.
Being proactive with treatment doesn’t guarantee success, but it is associated with it, so knowing the difference between healthy and unhealthy spinal curves can help achieve early detection.