The spine is the central support system for the torso, neck and head. It plays a critical role not only in maintaining bodily architecture, but also in protecting the spinal cord and nerves, facilitating movement and anchoring key musculature. Because it is part of so many essential functions, problems involving your spine can have a significant impact on your comfort, mobility, activity level and well-being.
All bones lose density and become weaker with age. In the spine, weakened vertebrae can collapse under the weight of gravity or trauma. This type of injury is called a compression fracture.
A fracture is a break in a bone. The injury can range from a small hairline crack to complete separation or shattering. Fractures are often the result of motor vehicle accidents, falls or sports injuries. Everyday activities like bending or twisting can also cause fractures for people at a higher risk, such as those with low bone density and bone tumors.
When the vertebrae in the spine weaken, they become flatter and narrower. Spinal compression fractures occur when too much pressure is placed on a weakened vertebra and the bone cracks, and usually loses some of its normal height. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, nearly 700,000 patients experience spinal compression fractures each year.
Vertebral compression fractures most commonly occur around the lower back or mid-chest level, and are often very painful in the days or weeks following a fracture.
Back pain is the most recognizable symptom of a compression fracture. The pain usually occurs near the break itself, but can sometimes move to other areas of the body (for example, into the abdomen). The pain tends to worsen with motion and forceful activities like sneezing and coughing. It is often relieved by resting or lying down.
In addition to back pain, a vertebral compression fracture may be accompanied by one or more of the following symptoms:
Osteoporosis (very low bone mineral density) is the most common cause of vertebral compression fractures. This disease, which happens to many people in older age, causes bones to weaken and become more likely to break. It often goes unnoticed for years, revealing itself only when a bone breaks.
Women are most likely to suffer from an osteoporosis-related compression fracture, especially after menopause. However, older men also develop osteoporosis and compression fractures. Individuals who have had one compression fracture related to osteoporosis are at a higher risk of having another one.
Not all vertebral compression fractures are linked to osteoporosis. Other possible causes include tumors in the spine and traumatic injuries to the spine.
If you believe you may have a compression fracture, your first step should be to see a doctor for a diagnosis. Your doctor will conduct a careful examination to assess the type and extent of the injury, as well as your overall health condition. Come to your first appointment prepared to discuss your symptoms, your medical history and how the injury occurred.
The most common way to evaluate fractures is with imaging tests. X-rays provide clear images of bone, showing whether the bone is intact or broken and where the fracture is located. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can show whether there is damage to the soft tissues around the fracture, and can sometimes help determine whether a fracture happened recently or many months ago. A CT scan can help your doctor assess whether the fracture extends into the spinal canal, where the nerve roots and spinal cord are located.
Your doctor may also order a bone density test. This type of scan is utilized to diagnose osteoporosis and assess how severe the condition is.
Many people with vertebral compression fractures get better within three months without specific medical treatments. Simple measures, such as the use of pain medications and a period of rest, are often all that is required. Some patients wear a brace to support the spine and restrict movement while the fracture heals.
If these conservative treatment methods prove ineffective, surgical intervention is an option. Kyphoplasty is a minimally invasive procedure in which an orthopedic cement is injected directly into the fractured vertebra to stabilize the bone. A special balloon is often placed into the affected vertebra and gently inflated before injection of the cement mixture. This step helps restore height to the vertebra, thus reducing deformity of the spine.
An important part of treatment, especially if you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis, is reducing the risk of future compression fractures. To prevent bone loss or slow its progression, exercise regularly and include adequate amounts of Vitamin D and calcium in your diet. Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. Estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) is often recommended for menopausal and post-menopausal women.
At Vascular and Interventional Partners of Scottsdale, AZ, we help patients get their lives back with state-of-the-art minimally-invasive treatments that offer equal, if not better, results than open surgery. Our team of interventional radiologists has extensive experience in the field, both as practitioners and as educators. We strive to provide honest, personalized, and empathic care to all who walk through our doors.
To get see if these procedures are right for you, please request a consultation online or call the VIP office at (480) 435-9100.