What causes vertebral compression fractures, and can they be treated?
Vertebral compression fractures occur when the bones of the spine collapse, break, or crack. When these bones fracture, it can cause severe pain and loss of height. Vertebral compression factures can also result in an abnormal curvature of the spine, or kyphosis. These fractures can occur in vertebrae anywhere in the spine. However, they most commonly occur in the lower part of the thoracic spine.
Causes of Vertebral Compression Fractures
Compression fractures can be caused by trauma to the spine, such as a fall from a great height in which the person lands on the feet or buttocks. They can also occur with certain bone diseases including cancer. However, these painful fractures occur most frequently in those who suffer from severe osteoporosis, as their bones have weakened over time and are more susceptible to a fracture. If the bones are weak enough, a stumble or even a sneeze could cause a compression fracture.
Symptoms of a Vertebral Compression Fracture
A vertebral compression fracture can cause a sudden onset of back pain, or pain may come about gradually. The most common symptom is pain felt in the mid-back area. However, a compression fracture can also result in upper back, neck, or hip pain. Other possible symptoms include numbness, tingling, or weakness (a result of compressed nerves at the fracture site), or in severe cases, incontinence or the inability to urinate.
You should see your doctor or a board-certified pain management specialist to have your back pain evaluated if:
- You are older than 65 years old, or are under 12 years of age
- You have a personal history of cancer
- Your pain is the same at rest as it is during activity
- Your pain is worse while sleeping
- You have experienced unintentional weight loss
If you experience any of the following in addition to back pain, seek medical attention immediately:
- Loss of control of your bowels and bladder
- Severe pain, numbness, or weakness
- Fever higher than 100.4F
Vertebral Compression Fracture Treatment
The first step in treating your pain is to get an accurate diagnosis of the cause of your symptoms. Based on your diagnosis, you and your doctor can determine your best treatment options. Often, fractures heal with conservative treatment. This may include pain medication, rest and/or activity modification, medications to help stabilize or restore bone loss, back bracing to minimize motion and provide support during the healing process, and physical therapy. Vertebral compression fracture-related pain that is allowed to heal naturally can last as long as three months. However, the pain usually improves significantly in a matter of days or weeks.
When pain from a vertebral compression fracture becomes chronic, or when conservative treatment options have proven ineffective, two minimally invasive procedures – vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty – may be considered as treatment options.
During vertebroplasty, a small needle containing specially formulated bone cement is injected into the collapsed vertebra. The cement hardens quickly, stabilizing the vertebra, and therefore the spine, immediately. Vertebroplasty is effective for relieving pain caused by a fractured vertebra and stabilizing the bone.
Similar to vertebroplasty, kyphoplasty is a minimally invasive procedure designed to relieve the pain caused by a spinal fracture, stabilize the bone, and correct the bone deformity. Prior to injecting the cement, a special balloon is inserted and gently inflated inside the fractured vertebrae to restore height to the collapsed bone. The spaces created by the balloons are then filled with the cement.
Vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty are outpatient procedures, and can be performed with moderate sedation by PRC Alliance Pain Relief Centers’ pain management experts. If you have back pain or if you have a known vertebral compression fracture that has not responded to prior treatments, contact us today to learn more.
Lorrie M. Kenseth, ARNP is an advanced registered nurse practitioner and pain management specialist at PRC Alliance Pain Relief Centers. To learn more, visit Lorrie Kenseth’s profile.