When the vertebral body experiences a squeezing from top to bottom, often a compression fracture occurs as the vertebral bone essentially collapses from weight that it cannot sustain. In cases of a degeneration of multiple vertebral bodies at once—found in those suffering from osteoporosis, or a deterioration of bone—typically both the upper back (thoracic area) and lower back (lumbar area) are affected. And there can be a cascading effect: once one fracture occurs, the weight on the remaining intact vertebra is compounded, leading to more fractures up and down the spine column and resulting in kyphosis, which appears as abnormal hump in the spine. Kyphosis can also indirectly cause pain in the neck due to straining and, as it continues to impact the spinal cord, may result in a serious loss of mobility.
Often, a vertebral compression fracture will not present any symptoms to the patient, especially during periods of rest and inactivity. However, once the fracture worsens signs of a problem will no doubt appear quickly, and may include limitations on flexibility and mobility in the back; weakness or numbing around the affected area; and the appearance of pain during periods of activity.
Multiple vertebral compression fractures, when they occur in an individual’s later years, can actually cause a loss in height as the vertebrae compress, and that loss in height can, in turn, negatively impact the muscles of the back and cause significant pain. Hip problems are also common with multiple vertebral compression fractures, as are organ problems due to a constriction of the abdomen.
A physician seeking to diagnosis vertebral compression fractures will first look for injured vertebrae that may be painful. And imaging studies through x-rays and MRIs can be used to check if any nerves, discs or areas of soft tissue were damaged by the fracture. Additionally, if the presence of a tumor is confirmed, a biopsy will be necessary to determine whether the tumor is cancerous or benign.
Vertebral compression fractures can usually be treated with pain-relieving medications and, in elderly patients who may be experiencing bone loss due to osteoporosis, with calcium supplements to prevent further fractures. A temporary cessation of activities is also normally called for, combined with a physical therapy regimen to maintain muscle tone and flexibility in the back. Fractures may heal in as little as eight weeks, however if conventional treatment methods don’t result in a healing of the fracture and surgery is required, the recovery period could be significantly longer. Such surgeries aimed at relieving vertebral compression issues that resulted from the fracture may include vertebroplasty or balloon kyphoplasty.