The vertebrae are the bones that make up the spine, and when subjected to excessive stress, can fracture just like any other bone. Fractured vertebrae are the most serious of spinal injuries, occurring mostly in the lower and mid-back, and are most often caused by high-speed impacts such as car crashes or falling from a great height.
Fractured vertebrae are experienced more often by men than women, and are more common in the elderly due to bone weakening from conditions such as osteoporosis.
Fractured Vertebrae Causes
Fractures of the thoracic and lumbar spine in young adults are usually caused by high-energy trauma, such as:
- Car crashes
- Falls from height
- Sports accidents
- Violent acts, such as a gunshot wound
Vertebra fractures are not always caused by trauma. For example, people with osteoporosis, tumors or other underlying conditions that weaken bone can fracture a vertebra during normal, daily activities. This type of vertebra fracture is often referred to as a compression fracture.
Fractured Vertebrae Symptoms
The primary symptom is moderate to severe back pain that is made worse by movement. When the spinal cord is involved due to bone fragments pushing into the spinal canal, numbness, tingling, weakness and/or bowel/bladder dysfunction may occur. X-ray, MRI and CT scans are often needed to accurately diagnose the extent of the fracture.
In the case of a high-impact trauma, the patient may have a brain injury and may have lost consciousness. There may be other injuries as well – called distracting injuries – which cause pain that overwhelms the back pain. In these cases, it is assumed that the patient has a fracture of the spine, especially after a high-impact injury (motor vehicle crash).
Treatment for Vertebrae Fracture
Treatment depends on the type of fracture and if other injuries were sustained. Your Midwest Orthopedic Specialty Hospital doctor will discuss care options that are best for you.
Flexion Fracture Pattern
Nonsurgical treatment – Most flexion vertebrae fractures (compression fractures, burst fractures) can be treated in a brace for six to twelve weeks. By gradually increasing physical activity and doing rehabilitation exercises, most patients avoid post-injury problems.
Surgical treatment – Spine surgery is typically required for unstable burst vertebrae fractures that have:
- Significant comminution (fracture fragments)
- Severe loss of vertebral body height
- Excessive forward bending or angulation at the injury site
- Significant spinal cord or nerve injury due to parts of the vertebral body or disk pinching the spinal cord
These fractures should be treated during surgery with decompression of the spinal canal and stabilization of the fracture. Decompression involves removing the bone or other structures that are pressing on the spinal cord. This type of surgery is also called a laminectomy, which uses metal implants to secure the fractured areas until they fuse together and heal.