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Compression Fractures of the Spine

What is it?

A spinal compression fracture is a collapse of the vertebra, the small bones that form the spine.

Fractures can happen suddenly due to trauma or develop slowly over time due to conditions such as osteoporosis or rarely spinal tumors. A fracture that happens suddenly can cause severe pain, while a fracture that happens gradually may cause very little pain and go unnoticed.

What causes it?

Spinal fractures can occur due to trauma, or because of an underlying condition, such as osteoporosis or less commonly, spinal tumors.

Patients with brittle or weakened bones are at higher risk for spinal compression fractures. They are most common in females with osteoporosis over age 50.

When bones are weakened, normal activities such as lifting, bending or coughing can cause small fractures to form.

Tripping and slipping can also cause fractures.

What are the signs and symptoms?

The signs of a spinal compression fracture can vary from patient to patient. Small fractures may occur so gradually that a patient may have little to no pain.
Symptoms of a spinal fracture include:

  • Sudden, severe back pain
  • Pain when bending or twisting
  • Pain that worsens when standing or walking
  • Pain that subsides slightly when lying down
  • Loss of height
  • A spine that appears curved or hunchbacked

What are other side effects/areas of the anatomy affected?

If multiple fractures occur, a patient can experience a variety of symptoms. It’s important to seek immediate medical attention if you suspect a spinal fracture is the cause of these symptoms:

  • Stomach problems
  • Hip pain caused by the ribcage being closer to the hips
  • Difficulty breathing caused by severe vertebral compression
  • New numbness, tingling or weakness in the limbs
  • Impaired bowel or bladder control

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor will first conduct a medical history and physical examination.

If a spinal compression fracture is suspected, an X-ray of the spine will be performed. For a more detailed examination of the spine, your doctor may also order a CT scan or MRI.

Spinal fractures are sometimes caused by spinal tumors. If cancer is suspected, a bone biopsy may be performed.

What are the treatment options?

A majority of spinal compression fractures heal using nonsurgical treatment methods. While pain can last more than three months, many patients feel significant improvement in their pain levels after just a few days from the start of treatment.

Spinal fracture treatment may include:

  • Reduction in activity. Your doctor may suggest that you take it easy for a few days. Bed rest is generally only recommended for a short time period as it can lead to further bone loss and future spinal fractures.
  • Medication. Anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen can greatly reduce pain. Muscle relaxers and other prescription medication may also be prescribed by your doctor.
  • Back bracing. Your doctor may recommend a back brace to limit the motion of fractured vertebrae and provide you with extra support. Typically, back braces are only used for a short period of time to avoid weakening supporting muscles around the spine.

If a fracture is caused by osteoporosis, your doctor will treat the fracture along with your osteoporosis to prevent future fractures from occurring.

Most spinal fractures heal without surgery. If a more conservative approach does not heal your fracture, surgery may be considered.

Your doctor will provide you with a prognosis based on your individual diagnosis.

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