What is a Spinal Fracture?

Normal vs. fractured vertebrae

Spinal fractures occur when the bones in your spine, called vertebrae, break and collapse. They can happen due to trauma or injury, such as experiencing a bad fall or car accident. Or, spinal fractures may be caused by simple movements like coughing or sneezing if your vertebrae have become weak and brittle from osteoporosis or cancer. Every year more than a million people suffer from this kind of spinal fracture; vertebral compression fractures are the most common type.1

What Are the Symptoms of a Spinal Fracture?

Symptoms of a VCF or spinal fracture can include sudden onset back pain lasting longer than a few days, especially in people who have or at risk of having osteoporosis or low bone mass. Tell your doctor of you have these symptoms so he or she can ask you questions, examine your back, and recommend an x-ray or other imaging tests if needed. Back pain can be caused by numerous things. A spinal fracture is a specific condition with specific treatment options.

Are Spinal Fractures That Common?

Spinal fractures are twice as common as hip fractures1 and three times more common than breast cancer.2 Spinal fractures are most common in postmenopausal women over 55.3 In fact, one in two women over age 50 will suffer an osteoporosis-related spinal fracture.4

Consequences of Untreated Spinal Fractures

If a spinal fracture is left untreated, the vertebra may heal in the "broken" or "caved in" position. This can lead to increased forward curvature, or kyphosis, the medical term for the visible postural change that people refer to as a "dowager's hump" or "hunchback."

Just one spinal fracture that remains deformed shortens the spine and pushes it forward, adversely affecting spinal alignment. Each additional spinal fracture increases the spinal deformity5-6 and the spinal curvature can become more pronounced. When you change your posture to compensate for kyphotic deformity, it can affect how you walk and can strain your back and joints. A misaligned spine can also compress your internal organs and lead to health problems seemingly unrelated to your spine, such as:

  • Reduced mobility7, loss of balance6, and increased risk of falls8-10
  • Reduced ability to take care of yourself11
  • Reduced days of activity5,6 and more days in bed2
  • Decreased appetite5,6 and sleep disorders12,14
  • Chronic back pain13,14 and fatigue5
  • Decreased quality of life5
  • Feelings of isolation and sadness5,14,15
  • Increased risk for future fracture5,6
A downward spiral of complications
Person with untreated VCF

There are two main surgical treatments designed to repair vertebral compression fractures:

  • Balloon kyphoplasty – A minimally invasive procedure that uses a balloon to lift the vertebrae and create a cavity for bone cement to stabilize the fracture
  • Vertebroplasty – A minimally invasive procedure in which liquid bone cement is injected into the affected vertebrae to stabilize the fracture and relieve pain

Why It's Important to Treat Spinal Fractures

Hear Dr. Gordon talk about the health consequences of spinal fractures.


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  3. Evans et al. Vertebral Compression Fractures: Pain Reduction and Improvement in Functional Mobility after Percutaneous Polymethylmethacrylate Vertebroplasty Retrospective Report of 245 Cases, Radiology 2003.
  4. NOF https://www.nof.org/preventing-fractures/general-facts/bone-basics/. Accessed 3/22/2012.
  5. Ross PD. Clinical consequences of vertebral fractures, Am J Med 1997;103(2A):30S-43S.
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  8. Ross et al. Annals Int Med, 1991;114(11):919-23.
  9. Myers, Wilson. Spine. 1997;22(24 Suppl):25S-31S.
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  11. Zampini JM, White AP, McGuire KJ. Comparison of 5766 vertebral compression fractures treated with or without kyphoplasty. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2010; 468(7):1773-1780.
  12. Silverman SL. The clinical consequences of vertebral compression fracture. Bone. 1992;13 Suppl 2:S27-31.
  13. Lyles KW, Gold DT, Shipp KM, et al. Association of osteoporotic vertebral compression fractures with impaired functional status. Am J Med. 1993;94(6):595-601.
  14. Gold. Osteoporosis 1996.
  15. Brunton. Vertebral compression fractures VCF Diagnosis, J of Fam Practice 2005.
  16. Tillman J, Shabe P, Rose M, Elson P, Wülfert E, Ashraf T. Fracture Reduction Evaluation Study 24-month final clinical study report, August 27, 2010.
  17. Cummings SR, Melton LJ. Epidemiology and outcomes of osteoporotic fractures. Lancet 2002 ;359:1761-1767.
  18. Based on company data/sales estimates.