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Compression Fractures

Collapse of the vertebra in the spine


Updated July 15, 2014

Lumbar spine anatomy

Image by permission, copyright of Medical Multimedia Group, 1998


What is a compression fracture of the spine?
A compression fracture occurs when the normal vertebral body of the spine is squished, or compressed, to a smaller height. This injury tends to happen in two groups of people. First, are patients who are involved in traumatic accidents. When a load placed on the vertebrae exceeds its stability, it may collapse. This is commonly seen after a fall. The second, and much more common, group of patients are those with osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis is a condition that causes a thinning of the bone. As the bone thins out, it is less able to support a load. Therefore patients with osteoporosis may develop compression fractures without severe injuries, even in their daily activities.

What are the symptoms of a compression fracture of the spine?
Back pain is by far the most common problem in patients with a compression fracture. Patients with osteoporosis who sustain multiple compression fractures may begin to notice a curving of the spine, like a hunchback, called a kyphotic deformity. The reason for this is the vertebrae are compressed in front, and usually normal in back. This wedge shaped appearance causes the spine to curve forward. When enough compression occurs, this may become a noticeable curvature. Patients with compression fractures also often notice a loss of their overall height because of the decreased size of the spinal column.

Nerve complaints are unusual in compression fractures because the spine and its nerves are behind the vertebra, and, as mentioned above, the front of the vertebra is compressed and the back remains normal. In some serious traumatic fractures, called "burst fractures," the compression occurs around the spinal cord and nerves. This is more serious and may require immediate treatment to prevent or relieve pressure on the spinal cord or nerves.

What is the treatment of compression fractures?
The best treatment is prevention. Usually, treatment is aimed at alleviating the pain, and preventing injuries in the future. This is best accomplished by treating osteoporosis with exercise, calcium, and medications.

If the pain is severe, and collapse is becoming problematic, a procedure called a vertebroplasty may be considered. In this procedure an interventional radiologist restores the height of the bone and injects cement into the vertebra to stabilize the fracture and prevent further collapse.

Compression fractures tend to heal completely in about 8 to 12 weeks. Patients who have one compression fracture are much more likely to have more, and therefore prevention of future compression fractures must be addressed. Understanding osteoporosis can help you avoid this common problem.

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