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Vertebral Compression Fracture Overview
The spine is made up of strong bones called vertebrae. A vertebra can break just like any other bone in the body. When the vertebral body collapses, it is called a vertebral compression fracture. These fractures happen most commonly in the thoracic spine (the middle portion of the spine), particularly in the lower part. Vertebral fractures are usually caused by a condition such as osteoporosis , a very hard fall, or another type of injury.
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Compression fractures of the spine generally occur from too much pressure on the vertebral body. The fracture occurs when the vertebral body collapses, causing the front part of the vertebral body to become wedge shaped. The bone tissue on the inside of the vertebral body is crushed, or compressed.
This can happen when the spine bends forward at the same time downward pressure builds on the spine. For example, falling to the floor in a sitting position causes the spine to bend and the head to be thrust forward. This posture combined with pressure on the buttocks concentrates pressure on the front part of the spine, the vertebral bodies.
There are several causes of compression fractures. If the vertebra is too weak to hold normal pressure, it may take very little pressure to cause it to collapse. Most healthy bones can withstand pressure, and the spine is able to absorb the shock. However, if the forces are too high, one or more vertebrae may fracture.
Osteoporosis is a common cause of compression fractures in the spine. This disease thins bones, often to the point they become too weak to bear normal pressure. They can eventually collapse during normal activity, leading to a spinal compression fracture.
If the fracture is caused by a sudden, forceful injury, you will probably feel severe pain in your back, legs, and arms. You might also feel weakness or numbness if the fracture injures the nerves of the spine. If the bone collapse is gradual, such as a fracture from bone thinning, the pain will usually be milder. There might not be any pain at all until the bone actually breaks.
In very severe compression fractures, parts of the back of the vertebral body may actually protrude into the spinal canal and put pressure on the spinal cord. Fortunately this is not a common occurrence.
The most common treatments for a thoracic compression fracture are pain medications, decreasing activity, and bracing. Doctors are also using newer nonsurgical procedures called vertebroplasty and vertebral augmentation (often called kyphoplasty). These methods are minimally invasive and showing promise in the treatment of vertebral compression fractures. Vertebral fractures usually take about three months to fully heal. X-rays will probably be taken monthly to check on the healing progress. Surgery for compression fractures is rarely needed.
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IMPORTANT SAFETY INFORMATION
As with any medical treatment, individual results may vary. There are potential risks and recovery takes time. People with conditions limiting rehabilitation should not have this surgery. Only a spine surgeon can tell if spine treatment is right for you.