What Is a Compression Fracture?
If you’re experiencing back pain, the source of the problem may be a compression fracture.
Compression fractures usually occur because of osteoarthritis. When a vertebra loses between 10 and 15% in height, it’s diagnosed as a compression fracture.
Usually manifesting in the thoracic (middle) section of the spine, compression fractures may also occur in the upper (cervical) section.
Bones weakened by osteoarthritis which subsequently fracture are referred to variously, as:
- Vertebral fractures
- Wedge fractures
- Osteoporotic fractures.
The wedge fracture occurs in the anterior (front) section of vertebrae, causing the front of the vertebra to collapse, while the back of the vertebrae remains unchanged. Thus, the wedge fracture is reasonably stable, as it doesn’t lose its height.
But if the front of the vertebra is also implicated and the entire structure is affected, this is a crush fracture. The burst type of fracture is similar, affecting both the front and back of the vertebra. In the instance of burst fractures, clinicians must make a determination as to the ongoing stability of the bone.
If the crush fracture has left the bone unstable, deformity over time and neurological problems may arise.
Pain usually manifests following a fracture incident. A fracture may lead to deformities like kyphosis (dowager’s hump) and chronic pain, but it can also be responsible for loss of patient height, internal organ crowding and loss of physical conditioning because of pain.
Usually, fractures affect only the anterior portion of the implicated vertebra, so the patient maintains stability in the spine. It’s when the front and back of the vertebra are involved simultaneously, that injury and deformity can result.
A Common Problem
About 700,000 Americans experience vertebral fractures every year, most commonly due to osteoarthritis.
Osteoporosis is another common cause of spinal fractures, especially affecting older women. About 25% of all post-menopausal women in the USA will experience a spinal fracture. But men over 50 aren’t immune. 25% of them will also experience a spinal fracture.
The problem is that spinal fractures are regularly misdiagnosed as soft tissue-derived. This means that as many as 2/3rds of all spinal fractures sustained in the USA will not be diagnosed accurately.
Following are the most common symptoms of a compression fracture:
- Sudden back pain
- Pain is reduced when lying down
- Spinal mobility is limited
- Walking or standing exacerbate the pain
- Patient loses height
When back pain manifests suddenly and the patient is over 50, a compression fracture is usually suspected. Some physicians believe that a compression fracture should be “suspect zero” in women patients over 45, with sudden back pain.
People over the age of 50 should be aware of any loss in height or limitations in spinal mobility when twisting or bending. These symptoms are concerning and patients would do well to schedule a visit with their primary care givers to investigate the problem, as not all patients experience pain.
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