What is a spinal compression fracture?

Compression fractures occur when you have many cracks in the vertebrae that cause a vertebra to collapse. Back pain is the first symptom of a compression fracture, and it can increase in intensity as the condition worsens.

If you are a woman over age 50 at risk for osteoporosis, you should consult with your doctor right away. Early intervention can help prevent future compression fractures.

Causes of a spinal compression fracture

A compression fracture is most commonly caused by osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a bone disease that occurs when a person’s bone density is reduced. As the bone mass decreases, people are more likely to have a spinal compression fracture. Osteoporosis is most common in women after menopause.

Other causes of compression fractures include:

  • Trauma — people who suffer severe injuries such as in a car accident or falling from a high ladder and land on their buttocks can suffer a spinal compression fracture.
  • Conditions that affect the bone (pathologic fracture) — compression fractures can occur due to a vertebral fracture or disease that affects the bone at the site. This is most common in patients who have cancer that has spread throughout the body to the bone.

Risk factors for compression fractures 

People who have osteoporosis or cancer that has spread to their bones are more likely to suffer from a compression fracture.  Osteoporosis causes the most cases of spinal compression fractures. Patients who have cancer such as multiple myeloma or lymphoma are also often monitored for compression fractures. 

Symptoms of compression fractures 

Back pain is the most common symptom associated with a spinal compression fracture. The pain can worsen as the disease progresses and can be more intense when you stand or walk. Many patients experience relief after lying down.

Other symptoms associated with spinal compression fractures include:

  • Inability to twist or bend your body
  • Curved spine 
  • Height loss 

Diagnosis for compression fractures

A spinal compression fracture can be diagnosed in a medical exam with your Mercy Health primary care or spine specialist. During the exam, your doctor will take a full medical history, evaluate your symptoms and order diagnostic imaging testing such as:

  • X-ray 
  • CT (computed tomography) scan
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan

Treatment for compression fractures 

The goal of spinal compression fracture treatment is to provide symptom relief, treat the underlying cause (such as osteoporosis) and prevent future compression fractures. Most patients can be effectively treated with medication, reducing activity level and a back brace. A spinal compression fracture can heal naturally within three months.

Non-surgical treatments for spinal compression fractures include:

  • Over-the-counter medication — non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) are effective in relieving the pain associated with a compression fracture.
  • Prescription pain medication — for more serious cases, narcotic, muscle relaxants or antidepressants are prescribed for short-term relief.
  • Increased activity — if you suffered a spinal compression fracture due to osteoporosis, you should avoid long-term resting. If bed rest is necessary to avoid pain, limit the amount of time you are down. Prolonged inactivity can lead to further bone loss.
  • Back brace — a brace on the spine can reduce motion of the fractured area, which can relieve pain.
  • Osteoporosis medications —if you suffered a compression fracture due to osteoporosis, taking osteoporosis medication is crucial to prevent future compression fractures.

If non-surgical treatments are not effective, surgery may be necessary.

Surgical procedures that may be used to treat a compression fracture include:

Vertebroplasty is a minimally invasive treatment option used to treat spinal compression fractures. The goal of treatment is to relieve pain associated with the compression fracture and stabilize the spine. During a vertebroplasty procedure, your surgeon will use acrylic bone cement that hardens quickly. Following your procedure, your spinal bone will be stabilized, and the healing time is short.

Kyphoplasty is a minimally invasive treatment option for patients who have suffered from a spinal compression fracture. During a kyphoplasty, your surgeon will correct any bone deformities and relieve the pain associated with spinal compression fracture.

Spinal fusion surgery
As a last resort option, spinal fusion surgery is used to reduce the movement between vertebrae. During spinal fusion surgery, two vertebrae are connected by metal screws attached to metal plates or rods and held together until they grow together (fuse).

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