Tiny fractures can develop in the spine, and when enough of them occur, they can eventually cause the vertebral body to weaken and eventually collapse. When it is significant enough that it causes a vertebral body to decrease in height by 15 to 20 percent, it is called a spinal compression fracture. Usually, the effects of aging, specifically osteoporosis, cause it to occur.
Warning Signs & Symptoms
Spinal compression fractures can occur without symptoms. People may experience significant pain, slight pain or no pain at all.
After compression fractures occur, the spine can lose strength, which can diminish a person's height. The shape of the back can change, too. That is because most fractures are asymmetric and lead to asymmetric vectors of force being applied to the spine.
Most spinal compression fractures happen secondary to osteoporosis. White or Asian women who have reached menopause and are over 50 are at high risk, as well as people with bone cancer and those who smoke.
Tests to Diagnose Compression Fractures
The majority of spinal compression fractures are never diagnosed because people believe their back pain is the result of aging and arthritis. A physician may ask questions about the patient’s pain and perform a physical exam, as well as order some type of imaging test such as an X-ray, CT scan or MRI. If bone cancer is suspected, a bone biopsy may be done.
Medications, back braces, physical therapy and modifying activity may help reduce pain. There are a number of minimally invasive compression fracture pain treatment options such as:
- Kyphoplasty: A balloon is inserted into the fractured bone using a hollow needle. Bone cement is then injected into the cavity after the balloon is removed.
- Radiofrequency Denvervation: High frequency radio waves are passed through a needle into a small area of the nerve. When this happens, it creates heat and damages the nerve, which stops it from submitting pain signals.
- Vertebroplasty: A fluoroscope (an instrument with a camera on it) is used by a physician to guide a hollow needle to the damaged area. Once at the area, bone cement is injected into it.
- Epidural Steroid Injections: Steroids often help alleviate the acute pain associated with the fracture. This pain relief can often allow the patient to be more mobile, sleep better, and take deeper breaths (decreasing the risk of pneumonia).
The best step to take to prevent a compression fracture is to make sure to get enough calcium in your diet, either with calcium supplements and/or medications as recommended by a physician to help strengthen your spine and prevent osteoporosis. Weight-bearing exercises are also helpful because they build bone density.
If you already have osteoporosis or are at risk for compression fractures, you can do the following:
- Take care when you are bending to lift an object
- Check for tripping hazards in your home and remove them—such as loose rugs, electrical cords and low furniture
- Install hand rails or grasp bars throughout your home and bathroom