Compression Fractures of the Spine

Collapse of the Vertebra in the Spine

Compression Fracture, MRI
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What is a Compression Fracture of the Spine?

A compression fracture occurs when the normal vertebral body of the spine is squished, or compressed, to a smaller height. This injury tends to happen in three groups of people.

  1. Patients who are involved in traumatic accidents. When a load placed on the vertebrae exceeds its stability, it may collapse. This is commonly seen after a fall.
  2. People with osteoporosis. This is much more commonly the cause. Osteoporosis is a condition that causes a thinning of the bone. As the bone thins out, it is less able to support a load. Therefore, patients with osteoporosis may develop compression fractures without severe injuries, even in their daily activities. They don't have to have a fall or other trauma to develop a compression fracture of the spine.
  1. Patients with tumors that spread to the bone or tumors such as multiple myeloma that occur in the spine.

What are the Symptoms of a Compression Fracture of the Spine?

Back pain is by far the most common symptom in patients with a compression fracture. You may experience sudden, severe back pain.

But if the vertebral fracture is due to osteoporosis, you may not have symptoms at first. Patients with osteoporosis who sustain multiple compression fractures may begin to notice a curving of the spine, like a hunchback, called a kyphotic deformity or dowager's hump. The reason for this is the vertebrae are compressed in front, and usually normal in back. This wedge-shaped appearance causes the spine to curve forward. When enough compression occurs, this may become a noticeable curvature. Patients with compression fractures also often notice a loss of their overall height because of the decreased size of the spinal column.

Nerve complaints are unusual in compression fractures because the spine and its nerves are behind the vertebra, and, as mentioned above, the front of the vertebra is compressed, and the back remains normal. In some serious traumatic fractures, called "burst fractures," the compression occurs around the spinal cord and nerves.

This is more serious and may require immediate treatment to prevent or relieve pressure on the spinal cord or nerves.

What is the Treatment for Compression Fractures of the Spine?

Pain medication and bed rest are used to control the pain. Physical therapy may help. If you develop a compression fracture, the usual treatment is aimed at alleviating the pain, and preventing injuries in the future. This is best accomplished by treating osteoporosis with exercise, calcium, and medications.

If the pain is severe, and collapse is becoming problematic, a procedure called a vertebroplasty may be considered. In this procedure, an interventional radiologist restores the height of the bone and injects cement into the vertebra to stabilize the fracture and prevent further collapse.

Compression fractures tend to heal completely in about 8 to 12 weeks. Patients who have one compression fracture are much more likely to have more, and, therefore, prevention of future compression fractures must be addressed. Understanding osteoporosis can help you avoid this common problem.


C. Benjamin Ma, MD. "Compression Fractures of the Back, MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. 7/13/2015.

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