Osteoporosis and Compression Fractures
There is a reason why osteoporosis is commonly called the "fragile bone disease." It is due to loss of bone density caused by a deficiency in such bone-building nutrients as calcium, vitamin D, magnesium and other vitamins and minerals.
One of the most common results of fragile bones is vertebral compression fractures. While these types of fractures can be the result of trauma or tumors, they are seen most often in people with osteoporosis. In fact, they are the most common complication of osteoporosis. In people with advanced osteoporosis, compression fractures can occur as the result of simple daily activities such as bending, carrying heavy loads, or a minor fall.
What are Compression Fractures?
The spinal column (or vertebral column) extends from the skull to the pelvis and is made up of 33 individual bones called vertebrae. The vertebrae are stacked on top of each other with shock-absorbing discs in between them. This is what gives the spine its flexibility. Because vertebrae are made up of softer bone tissue than other harder bones in the body, they are particularly vulnerable to osteoporosis.
Compression fractures occur when the vertebrae collapse, decreasing the space between them by 15-20%. This compression causes chronic back pain, loss of height (this is why many older people seem to shrink as they age), deformity (called kyphosis but often called a "dowager's hump" or "humpback"), and, in severe cases, neurological symptoms such as numbness, tingling, or weakness. If there are multiple compression fractures along the vertebral column (as is common) difficulty walking and a loss of balance is common. This leaves people with an increased risk of falling and breaking other bones, such as hips.
Compression fractures are often diagnosed only after a person seeks medical attention either for pain relief or after a fall. However, many compression fractures go undiagnosed and their symptoms are attributed to being an inevitable part of aging.
Treatment of Compression Fractures
Traditional treatment for compression fractures include pain medications, bed rest, bracing or, in very severe cases, surgery. Today there are two promising therapeutic and preventive treatments for compression fractures called vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty. These procedures utilize orthopedic cement, which is injected into the space between the vertebrae. The cement hardens and returns the vertebral space to its original height. This procedure can restore height, relieve pain and strengthen other vertebral bodies that are weakened but not yet fractured, thus preventing future problems.
Prevention of Compression Fractures
Preventing osteoporosis is key to preventing compression fractures. Prevention efforts should begin early with eating a well-balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals, exercising daily, and making healthy lifestyle choices like not smoking. In people for whom osteoporosis is already a problem, there are medications that can help increase bone density and strength. For these people, a healthy diet and exercise is also very important.
Maintaining bone strength will not only keep you healthy, it will prevent your bones from becoming fragile and vulnerable to fractures. If you are concerned about your health or your chances of getting osteoporosis, talk to your doctor. A bone density scan is an easy and painless way to detect early signs of this disease.