When a vertebra in the spine is “compressed,” an aptly named “compression fracture” has occurred. Most commonly caused by a trauma to the spine, such a fracture can also be the result of a weakening of the bones due to osteoporosis or from a bone tumor. And although they often present in the mid-lower back, compression fractures can affect any part of the spine.

Those suffering from compression fractures will have pain in the back that begins only mildly but progresses with physical activity. Some patients may even become shorter, and the damaged vertebra can cause the spine to bend forward in a condition called kyphosis. Taking a fall onto one’s back can cause the onset of symptoms, which manifest as irritated nerves within the spinal cord and a change in sensitivity in the arms and legs.

Physicians use imaging, specifically x-rays, CT scans or MRIs, to determine whether a compression fracture is present. An x-ray will also show whether there have been changes in spinal alignment and/or a reduction in the space between vertebrae, as a fractured vertebra appears smaller than a healthy one. Additionally, a bone density scan may indicate whether osteoporosis is present and if it is the underlying cause of the compression fracture.

Because pain is often the only debilitating symptom of compression fractures, pain-relieving medications are one of the main forms of treatment. Supplements to strengthen the bones may also be prescribed, and regular physical therapy has been shown to help patients maintain a healthy level of mobility and keep pace with normal daily activities. And surgery may be an option only if all other treatments fail and the patient has had persistent pain for more than two months. Such surgeries include vertebroplasty, kyphoplasty and spinal fusion techniques.

Recovery from a compression fracture typically occurs within two months if prescribed medications and therapies are adhered to with consistency. But it’s important to note that, when left untreated, compression fractures can lead to debilitating conditions marked by abnormal posture and ongoing pain from damage to the nerve roots.