What Are Spinal Fractures?
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 spinal fractures such as vertebral compression fractures—the most common type.1
Types of Spinal Fractures
Spinal fractures are classified in many different ways, ranging from mild to severe, stable to unstable, and minor to major. The different classification methods can be confusing, here’s a simplified overview of the most common types of fractures.
A vertebral compression fracture or “VCF” is the most common type of spinal fracture. It usually results from a fall, often from ground level. It is typically seen in elderly people who have osteoporosis, or in those whose bones have been weakened by other diseases such as cancer.
Burst fractures are severe and usually caused by trauma or extreme force. The term implies that the vertebra has been crushed in all directions and the space for the spinal cord and nerves is compromised. This type of fracture is considered unstable and requires immediate medical attention.
Like the name suggests, these types of fractures occur from both flexion (bending of the spine) and compression to the vertebral body. Usually there is some loss of vertebral height with this injury, but as long as the middle and posterior columns are intact, this fracture is considered stable.
Flexion-distraction fractures are sometimes called “chance” fractures. They are often caused by seatbelts in car accidents due to violent forward flexion (bending of the spine). In this type of fracture, the vertebra can break and there may be injury to the bone, ligaments, and discs.
Compression-torsion-translational fractures typically result from multiple forces where compression affects the lateral margins of the vertebral body, and torsion (twisting and turning) and translational forces (uniform movement without rotation) may affect the bones, ligaments, or discs.
What Are the Symptoms of Spinal Fractures?
The symptoms of spinal fractures vary depending on the severity of the injury. The pain can be mild or severe, and it may be spread out or limited to the area where the fracture occurred. If the spinal cord or nerve roots are involved, weakness, paralysis, arm pain, numbness or tingling can occur. When a spinal fracture results from the bone slowly collapsing over time, the pain can develop gradually.
Spinal fractures often go undiagnosed, so it’s important to talk to your doctor if you have back pain that won’t go away, or if you’ve noticed a decrease in height or changes in your posture.
How Are Spinal Fractures Diagnosed?
Sometimes you can feel pain from a spinal fracture, but it may not show up on an x-ray for several weeks. If your doctor doesn’t find a spinal fracture on the initial x-ray, but you have persistent back pain with no clear causes, consider asking for a second test, such as an MRI or CT scan.
How Are Spinal Fractures Treated?
Compression fracture treatments usually fall into two groups: surgical and non-surgical. With most compression fractures, non-surgical options like avoidance of heavy physical activity, pain relief, and bracing are effective. However, these treatments only manage pain and don’t repair the bone or correct spinal deformities. In fact, if left untreated some spinal fractures can heal in a broken or deformed position—potentially causing your spine to shorten and angle forward, resulting in a stooped posture or a hunched back. This forward curvature of the spine—called kyphosis—can make it difficult to walk, reach for things, and perform daily activities.
Balloon kyphoplasty, a minimally invasive procedure, and spinal fusion are two surgical options used to treat some spinal fractures. Learn more about kyphoplasty and other surgical treatment options.
Targeted drug delivery may be an option for managing chronic pain from spinal fractures. Learn more about targeted drug delivery.