What is a Vertebral Compression Fracture?

Vertebral compression fractures are extremely common, occurring about 1.5 million times each year in the United States. The leading cause of vertebral compression fractures is a bone-thinning condition called osteoporosis, which puts those 55 and older at a higher risk, and women are 4 times more likely than men to sustain these types of fractures.

What is Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is the leading cause of vertebral fractures in the US, but what is osteoporosis, and how does it affect the spine? Osteoporosis is “a medical condition in which the bones become brittle and fragile from loss of tissue, typically due to hormonal changes or deficiency of calcium and/or vitamin D.”

Due to the increased fragility, the vertebrae become more easily compromised, leading to increased fractures. Osteoporosis can increase fractures of all bones but is highly prevalent in the spine.

The Spine and Vertebrae

The spine is the backbone of the human body. Built like a tunnel that provides protection for the spinal cord, the spine also aids in structure and movement of the body.

The spine has 33 vertebrae stacked on each other, with discs between each vertebra. There are seven cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic vertebrae, five lumbar vertebrae, five sacral vertebrae, and five coccygeal vertebrae. The five sacral and five coccygeal vertebrae usually fuse, giving most adults 24-26 vertebrae, compared to the 33 vertebrae humans are born with.

Vertebrae are made of cancellous, spongy bone with superior and inferior endplates made of hardened cortical bone. The importance of the vertebra is extensive. Physiologically, the vertebra provides nutrients and attachments to the spinal discs. Structurally, they work with the spinal discs to protect the spinal cord and aid in axial loading and supporting limbs.

What are Vertebral Fractures?

Fractures of the vertebrae are usually the result of improper axial loading and/or dislocation.

The most common levels for a fracture to occur in the spine are between T11 and L2, commonly referred to as the thoracolumbar junction.

There are four types of vertebral fractures:

  • Compression: The most common type of vertebral fracture. This tends to result from weak vertebrae collapsing on themselves under high force or pressure. Compression fractures are usually related to a wedge fracture as the anterior wall collapses, creating a triangular shape.
  • Burst: Burst fractures will occur under extreme forces such as a car accident. The vertebrae are fractured in multiple areas, causing chips and pieces to move away from the fracture site, most often going into the spinal canal.
  • Flexion-Distraction: These tend to occur due to inertia. The body is at a constant speed and is suddenly stopped, usually due to a car accident, causing the body to bend forward and the vertebrae to fracture.
  • Fracture-Dislocation: These result when the vertebrae become dislocated from the disc, causing extreme instability.

When there is a vertebral fracture, there are varying pain levels, as the fracture can cause many other issues.

The vertebra can fracture and only cause pain at that level, or it can fracture and cause pressure onto the spinal cord or other nerves, causing radicular pain that radiates from your back into your legs through the spine.

Diagnosing and Treating Vertebral Fractures

To diagnose a vertebral fracture, advanced imaging is needed. Most physicians can see a fracture from an X-Ray, but an MRI, CT or bone density scan may be required.

The main goal of treating a spinal fracture is preserving mechanical stability and neurological function. Kyphoplasty or vertebroplasty are often utilized to repair a compression fracture and give strength and pain relief to the patient. These procedures are minimally-invasive and performed in an outpatient center. The relief of pain can help preserve your function and lifestyle to prevent inactivity and disability, which can otherwise lead to devastating consequences.

The other, less common types of vertebral fractures, usually require surgery to maintain stability and prevent or relieve neurological dysfunction.

Treating vertebral fractures require treatment from a skilled and experienced physician. If you’d like to learn more about vertebral fractures or experience severe acute back pain, schedule an appointment with one of our physicians, call (954) 567-1332.