Spinal Fractures: Frequently Asked Questions
What are the risk factors for spinal compression fractures?
While bone loss can affect anyone, there are certain risk factors that may make you more susceptible to osteoporosis and spinal compression fractures (also known as a vertebral compression fractures or VCFs). These risk factors include:
- Aging: As we age, our bones naturally lose some density and become weaker, so the risk for fractures increases.
- Being female: Bone loss is more common in women, especially post-menopausal women. Women lose bone mass at an accelerated rate in the first 5-7 years after menopause. During menopause, women experience a steep drop in estrogen, which is a female sex hormone that protects bones. When estrogen levels decrease, bones may lose density and become prone to fractures.
- Having a pre-existing spinal fracture: It sounds obvious, but having one spinal fracture greatly increases your chances of having another. Over time, multiple fractures can cause a loss of height, and you may notice your spine starting to hunch forward. Your doctor may refer to this forward curve as a condition called kyphosis.
Unhealthy lifestyle habits: Smoking, drinking large amounts of alcohol, and not exercising can all affect healthy bone density. Smoking and heavy alcohol consumption affects your body’s ability to absorb calcium. Living a sedentary lifestyle makes bones weak, making them prone to bone loss.
What are the symptoms of a spinal fracture?
You may feel a dull pain in your bones or muscles at the onset of bone loss. In most cases, spinal fractures happen gradually. However, they can occur as a result of an “everyday” activity, such as lifting a heavy object. Sometimes the trauma is minimal, such as coughing or reaching. The symptoms of spinal fractures are often mistaken for less serious back pain—you may experience pain ranging from sudden and severe, to long-lasting and dull.
How are spinal fractures diagnosed?
Schedule a bone mineral density test, and talk to your doctor about any back pain or changes in posture. A physical exam, along with other diagnostic tests, can help determine whether your back pain may be due to a fracture.
If your doctor suspects that you have a spinal fracture, diagnosis can be easily confirmed with diagnostic tests.
How are spinal fractures treated?
Patients with compression fractures may be treated with bed rest, bracing, or pain medications. Most patients heal this way, but there are risks, such as persistence of pain, spinal deformity, and the potential for spinal canal compromise.
In addition, bed rest can cause many additional complications, including worsening bone mineral density, deconditioning, bed sores, and it can even increase your risk of pneumonia and urinary tract infections. Because of these risks and the relatively low risk of surgery, many patients are offered bone cement implantation through vertebroplasty or kyphoplasty.
Vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty are two minimally invasive treatments for spinal compression fractures. Both procedures use orthopaedic bone cement to stabilize the fracture(s). You can learn more about these procedures in our article about surgery for osteoporosis.
If you’re confused about whether you need surgery, talk to your doctor. He or she will determine if you are a good candidate for either of these procedures.