A compression fracture occurs when part of a vertebra, or the vertebral body, collapses. The most common type is a wedge fracture, meaning the front of the vertebral body collapses and the back does not. Multiple compression fractures can lead to kyphosis, causing the upper back to curve forward. Compression fractures tend to occur in the thoracic or lumbar regions.
Pain is not always in indicator of a compression fracture. One that occurs suddenly can be very painful, but a compression fracture that occurs gradually over time may not cause severe pain. Symptoms of a possible compression fracture include:
- Pain in the back, arms, or legs
- Numbness or weakness in the arms or legs
- A loss of height over time
Typically, the fractured vertebra is already weakened when a compression fracture occurs. This weakness is generally attributed to osteoporosis. While it’s possible for the vertebra to be weakened by a tumor or infection, this is less frequent.
On your visit, your doctor will take a complete medical history and perform a physical examination. You’ll likely also be sent for imaging tests, such as X-rays, MRIs, CAT scans, and nuclear bone scans to help identify which bones are affected. Your doctor may also order additional tests to check for osteoporosis, tumors, or infections.
Generally, vertebral compression fractures are treated nonsurgically with pain medications and modified physical activity. You doctor may recommend a brace be worn to support your spine and prevent forward bending. Your fracture may take about 3 months to heal, and you’ll likely be sent for further X-rays to check progress.
In the case of osteoporosis, treatment with calcium and vitamin D, bisphosphonates, and exercise may help prevent further fractures.
Surgery may be recommended if the spine becomes unstable. Your surgeon will likely inject a cement-type mixture into the fractured vertebra to stabilize it, treat the pain, and prevent a deformity.
While not typical, your surgeon may need to perform a stabilization and fusion procedure to support your spine. Your surgeon will place a bone graft across the damaged vertebrae allowing them to fuse together, then place screws and rods to hold the vertebrae in place during healing.