Compression Fractures

Many spinal injuries are associated with traumatic injury, but often back problems are associated with the natural wear-and-tear that comes along with the process of aging.

Degenerative disease and bone loss are often at the root of back pain, and this is true even of a broken back. While a fractured spine may conjure images of automobile accidents or sports injuries, in reality, a great many spinal fractures are simply the result of getting older.

Compression fractures, for example, are sometimes associated with trauma or even tumors, but they are most commonly the result of osteoporosis, a disease associated with bone loss that most commonly affects women over the age of 50.

Definition of a Compression Fracture?

A compression fracture occurs when the bones of the spine—the vertebrae—become weakened through bone loss (osteoporosis), tumors (including those which begin in the bone or spine and those which spread to it), or trauma.

When a vertebra weakens, natural pressure on the bone—even from common daily activities like standing or reaching—can cause part of the vertebra, typically the front, to fracture. This causes the vertebra to become compressed, and one of the key features of a compression fracture is a loss of height—both of the affected vertebrae and the person.

Common Symptoms

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), there are several symptoms which may be indicative of vertebral compression fracture:

  • Back pain which begins suddenly
  • Increased pain while standing or walking (and even while coughing or sneezing)
  • Decreased pain while resting or lying on one’s back
  • Limited mobility
  • Loss of height

If compression fractures are left undiagnosed and untreated, they may lead to disability or disfigurement. A visible physical symptom of untreated vertebral compression fractures is kyphosis, commonly known as a “dowager’s hump” or “humpback.”

How These Injuries Occur

As stated earlier, anyone can sustain a compression fracture through trauma or cancerous tumors, but osteoporosis is the most common risk factor for vertebral compression fracture.

Because osteoporosis is typically asymptomatic, many people do not realize they have bone disease until they seek medical treatment for back pain and discover they have already sustained a fracture due to bone loss. Those at risk of osteoporosis, therefore, are most at risk of compression fracture.

According to the AANS, up to 10 million people—8 million women and 2 million men—have osteoporosis. Each year, approximately 750,000 people will suffer a vertebral compression fracture as a result.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine lists the following risk factors:

  • Being post-menopausal (women) or having decreased testosterone (men) as a result of aging
  • Insufficient Vitamin D and Calcium intake
  • Family history of osteoporosis
  • Amenorrhea, or the absence of menstruation
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Smoking
  • Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa
  • Certain medications, including seizure medications, hormone treatments, and prolonged use of steroid medications
  • Certain inflammatory medical conditions

If you are at risk of osteoporosis and associated compression fracture, you can minimize your risk by getting enough Vitamin D and Calcium and exercising, particularly including weight-bearing exercises.

Diagnosing a Compression Fracture

If you are experiencing the symptoms described above, or if you have back pain that is not relieved through rest and anti-inflammatory medications, seek medical attention. Your doctor can order X-rays and other diagnostic tests to determine whether or not you have a compression fracture. Treatment options may include lifestyle changes, medication, and Vitamin D and Calcium supplementation for treatment of osteoporosis, as well as medication, rest, physical therapy, or bracing for treatment of the fracture. In some cases, surgical intervention may be necessary.