Vertebral Compression Fracture


Broken bones are a part of life. Kids break bones falling out of trees or attempting a contact sport for the first time and many of us have experienced the pain of a broken bone as an adult. Perhaps the most painful broken bone is when bones in the spine break. This is known as vertebral compression fracture and typically occurs after a major trauma to the spine.

Broken bones in the spine are not a common trauma, but when they do it is usually bones in the lower portion of the spine. As you can imagine not all back traumas lead to a vertebral compression fracture, but due to an underlying problem such as osteoporosis of the spine, which reduces bone density. Other factors that can make the bones in the spine vulnerable to compression fractures include tumors, either on the spine or spreading to the spine from someplace else.


If you've recently suffered a major trauma and experience severe back pain there are certain symptoms that you may exhibit. Perhaps the most notable symptom is the sharp pain in the mid to lower spine that can render you immobile. Often the pain is felt on both sides of the spine.

If you wait too long to seek medical attention for a compression fracture in the spine, you may begin to experience symptoms related to pressure on the spinal cord, typically as a result of poor posture. If the compression affects your posture you may experience numbing and tingling in the back, muscle weakness and in severe cases, a loss of bladder or bowel control.

Patients with osteoporosis of the spine may not exhibit any symptoms in the immediate aftermath of a vertebral compression fracture, but slowly over time the back pain will worsen gradually. These sufferers may also lose as much as six inches of height over time as well as gradually worsening posture.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Any back pain experienced immediately following a trauma, particularly for patients with osteoporosis of the spine or elderly patients, should prompt a visit to the doctor right away. Do not allow this pain to persist for too long without medical attention as the pain will worsen and may cause further micro-fractures to the spine.

A visit to a physician will require many different diagnostic tests to determine the source of the pain, and if it indeed is due to a vertebral compression fracture or something else. This visit may also reveal a previously undiagnosed case of osteoporosis. Often a bone density test, an x-ray, a CT or MRI are part of the diagnostic process.

Since often compression fractures are due to a weakened spine it is important to have the underlying cause treated.

After diagnosis you and your physician will work together to come up with an effective treatment plan. Depending on the age and mobility of the patient, treatment may simply include bed rest and pain medication. For those capable of more activity a back brace may be used to keep the spine stable, but these have the unfortunate side effect of occasionally weakening the bones, which puts them at greater risk for further fracturing.

Physical therapy is often part of the treatment plan to help strengthen bones around the spine and increase mobility.

The last absolute option for treating a vertebral compression fracture is spinal fusion surgery, or surgery to remove tumors from the bones. This is a risky option that requires a long recovery period, particularly for the elderly or those with a weakened bone density or immune system.

If osteoporosis is the underlying cause of your compression fracture your physician will also recommend a diet or supplements that include vitamin D and calcium-rich foods. You may also be placed on a regimen of medications that will slow down the development of osteoporosis and reduce the rate of bone density loss. Be sure to find out all risk factors before agreeing to any medication.

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