I Have a Spinal Fracture—Is Rest Enough?

When to Seek Further Treatment

Question: I have a T3 and T4 compound fracture from diving in a pool. After a trip to the emergency room, I'm now in a neck brace. Do I need to see a neurosurgeon for further treatment or will it just heal on its own with bed rest? —Cicero, IL

Daily planner with the entry Medical appointmentAnswer: While you may think bracing and rest are enough to fully heal your injury, all spinal fractures warrant follow-up by a neurosurgeon or orthopedic spine specialist.

Even with a brace, these fractures can progress, meaning the bone can continue to crumble. This can not only lead to more pain but also perhaps spinal deformity or neurologic compression. That means if you start out with a simple fracture and it goes unmonitored, you can develop numbness, pain, or even weakness if the fracture progresses and nerves are pinched.

Another reason to visit a spine specialist is to ensure complete healing. For most patients, the fracture usually heals in two to six weeks. However, some patients may have a hidden instability from torn or stretched ligaments and tendons.

Damaged ligaments and tendon are soft tissues that usually heal slower than fractures. They are also often missed in the initial evaluation because they do not show up on plain x-rays or even a CT scan. These injuries require a dynamic plain film with flexion and extension views (that is, you will hunch over and arch back to show different views of your spine) or an MRI to diagnose.

To sum it up, visiting a spine specialist is essential if you experience a spinal fracture. An initial trip to the emergency room may be a short-term fix, but following up with a neurosurgeon or orthopedic specialist will best ensure the long-term health of your spine.