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What is a spinal fracture?

Any fracture that affects the spinal column or any of the bones within that area of the skeletal system is a spinal fracture, also known as a vertebral fracture. Additional injuries also are common with this type of fracture because of the amount of force it takes to injure the spine.

In the most severe cases, the fracture can affect the cervical vertebrae, in which case the neck breaks. There are seven cervical vertebrae in the neck, and if any one of them is broken, the neck may no longer be able to support the head and transport oxygen to the brain without intervention.

The most common types of spine fractures are compression fractures affecting the lower back (lumbar), the mid-back (thoracic) or the area where these two sections connect (thoracolumbar junction). Men are about four times as likely as women are to fracture the lumbar or thoracic spine, and because of the effects of osteoporosis, all senior citizens are at a greater risk of fracturing the spine. 

Types of spinal fractures

There are many different types of spine fractures, but the most common are compression fractures of the mid or lower spine. These may be categorized based on factors including the severity of the injury, the pattern of the fracture and whether the spinal cord was involved:  

Extension fractures

This type of fracture is typified by a pulling apart, or distraction, of the vertebrae. Head-on car collisions are a common cause, since the pelvis is kept in place by a seatbelt while the upper body is flung forward with great force. 

Rotation fractures

There are two types of rotation fractures: transverse process fractures, which are very rare and stem from extreme rotation or sideways bending, and fracture dislocations, which are more common and more unstable. The latter type of rotation fracture often involves displacement of vertebrae and damage to bones or soft tissue. 

Compression fractures

A spine compression fracture occurs when trauma or weakening of the bone causes injury to one or more vertebrae, causing a crack, break or “burst.” Fractures are most serious when they happen in the back of the rib cage or neck, where they can cause permanent damage to the spinal cord and potential neurological impairment.

Vertebral compression fractures (VCFs) are cracks in the vertebrae formed under pressure, which then cause the bones to collapse. This can happen as a result of trauma or weakened bones and is the most common type of fracture among people with osteoporosis. People who have sustained one VCF are five times more likely to experience another.

Symptoms

There are many possible spine fracture symptoms. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to seek medical assistance right away to reduce the risk of additional fractures and other complications:

  • Sudden and severe back pain
  • Back pain that increases when walking or standing, and decreases when lying down
  • Difficulty twisting and bending
  • Reduced height
  • Increased curvature in the spine (or other spinal deformities)
  • Ongoing pain during everyday activities, such as:
    • Bending to reach something on the floor
    • Lifting groceries, mattress corners or suitcases
    • Minor slips and missteps

The most serious type of spine fracture is one involving multiple breaks, which can dramatically alter the spinal column and damage internal organs. Again, not everyone will experience the same symptoms, so it’s important to seek immediate treatment from a medical expert. These are some of the most common multiple spine fracture symptoms:

  • Loss in height caused by several vertebral collapses
  • Curved back (also known as kyphosis)
  • Stomach problems, such as a bulging stomach and/or various digestive issues
  • Hip pain (caused by the ribcage being closer to the hips)
  • Difficulty breathing (caused by severe vertebral compression)

Fractures to healthy bone can cause sudden and severe pain. Fractures resulting gradually from degenerative diseases (such as osteoporosis) may not initially be bothersome, but may later develop into back pain and a possible reduction in height.

Causes

The most common spine fracture causes involving the lumbar and thoracic spine include:

  • Accidents during high-impact sports
  • Conditions that result in frail bones, such as osteoporosis and tumors
  • Falls from great heights (such as diving into shallow water)
  • Vehicle crashes
  • Violent injuries (e.g., gunshot wounds and other traumas)

While spine fractures don’t always result from trauma, cervical fractures always require a great deal of force. Falls and vehicle collisions are the most common cervical spine fracture causes, as well as aggressive contact sports including football, hockey, soccer, rugby and wrestling. Some other sports such as diving, equestrianism, motor racing, mountain biking, power lifting, skiing, snowboarding and surfing also occasionally lead to a cervical fracture (broken neck).    

Treatment options

Treatment for a spinal compression fracture can either be noninvasive or surgical. Noninvasive techniques include pain medication and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), as well as back and neck bracing to immobilize the spine as it heals. Surgical treatments can include minimally invasive procedures such as kyphoplasty and vertebroplasty, in which hardening material such as cement is injected into the bone.

Compression fracture (trauma)

People experience back pain differently. We can help with a variety of surgical or nonsurgical treatments to get you back on your feet again.

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