Compression fractures of the back
Compression fractures of the back are broken vertebrae, which are the bones of the spine.
Vertebral compression fractures
In a compression fracture of the vertebra, the vertebral bone collapses. More than one vertebra may be affected. This condition may be caused by:
- Osteoporosis (the most common cause),
- Trauma to the back
- Tumors that started in the bone or spread to the bone from elsewhere
Multiple fractures may lead to kyphosis, a hump-like curvature of the spine.
Compression fractures may occur suddenly, causing severe back pain that is:
- Most commonly felt in mid to lower part of the spine, but may also be felt on the sides or in the front.
- Described as “knifelike” and usually disabling, often taking weeks to months to go away
Compression fractures due to osteoporosis may cause no symptoms at first and may only be discovered when x-rays of the spine are done for other reasons. Over time, the following symptoms may occur:
- Back pain that starts slowly, which gets worse with walking but is not felt when resting
- Loss of height, as much as 6 inches over time
- Stooped over posture or kyphosis, also called a "dowager’s hump"
Pressure on the spinal cord from hunched over posture may rarely produce symptoms of:
Exams and Tests
Your doctor will perform a physical exam. This may reveal:
- A humpback, or kyphosis
- Tenderness over the affected spinal bone or bones
A spine x-ray shows at least one compressed vertebra that is shorter than the other vertebrae.
Other tests that may be done:
- A bone density test to evaluate for osteoporosis
- A CT or MRI scan if there is concern that the fracture was caused by a tumor or severe trauma (such as a fall from a height or car accident)
Most compression fractures are found in elderly patients with osteoporosis. These fractures generally do not cause injury to the spinal cord. In these patients, the osteoporosis is treated with prescription medications and calcium supplements to prevent more fractures.
Otherwise, the pain from these fractures is treated with pain medicines and bed rest at first. Narcotics are often needed. Some health care providers recommend back braces, but these may further weaken the bones and increase your risk of developing more fractures in the future.
Patients may benefit from some physical therapy to help with movement and building up muscle strength around the spine. A medicine called calcitonin may help relieve bone pain.
If severe and disabling pain is still present after 2 months or more of bed rest, pain medicines, and physical therapy, surgery can be option. Your doctor will discuss surgery options with you. Two minimally invasive techniques are available:
- Balloon kyphoplasty: A large needle is inserted into the compressed vertebra. A balloon is inserted into the bone through the needle and inflated, restoring the height of the vertebra. Cement is injected into this space to make sure it does not collapse again. This procedure is generally done under general anesthesia.
- Vertebroplasty: This is a similar procedure in which cement is injected into the bone of the vertebra. This procedure is done under local anesthesia and sedation.
If the fracture is caused by a tumor, a piece of the bone may need to be surgically removed and examined under a microscope (biopsy). Then the tumor is treated.
Fractures from trauma often require a brace for 6 - 10 weeks to protect the bone as it heals. If there is bone in the spinal canal, you may need surgery to remove the bone and fuse the vertebrae together to stabilize the spine.
Further spine surgery is almost always necessary if there is any loss of function because of bone pressing on the spinal cord or spinal nerves.
Most compression fractures from trauma will heal in 8 - 10 weeks with rest, bracing, and pain medications. Recovery time will be many weeks longer if surgery is necessary.
Fractures due to osteoprosis usually become less painful with rest and pain medications, but some can cause chronic pain and disability.
While medications to treat osteoporosis can help prevent future fractures, the collapse of the vertebrae that has already occurred cannot be reversed.
For compression fractures caused by tumors, the outcome depends on the type of tumor involved. Some common tumors that involve the spine include:
- Breast cancer
- Lung cancer
- Prostate cancer
Complications may include:
- Failure of the bones to fuse after surgery
- Humpback (kyphosis)
- Spinal cord or nerve root compression
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if:
- You have back pain and you think you may have a compression fracture
- Worsening symptoms or difficulty with controlling your bladder and bowel function
Treating and preventing osteoporosis is the most effective way to prevent these fractures.
Klazen CA, Lohle PN, de Vries J, et al. Vertebroplasty versus conservative treatment in acute osteoporotic vertebral compression fractures (Vertos II): an open-label randomised trial. Lancet. 2010 Sep 25;376(9746):1085-92.
Wardlaw D, Cummings SR, Van Meirhaeghe J, et al. Efficacy and safety of balloon kyphoplasty compared with non-surgical care for vertebral compression fracture (FREE): a randomised controlled trial. Lancet. 2009;373(9668):1016-24.
David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc., and C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.
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