Compression fractures of the spine occur when a loading force compresses the vertebral bodies resulting in loss of height of at least one level. This can occur from trauma such as a fall, car accident, or work accident. But it can also occur with relatively little force – for example stepping off a curb or sneezing – when abnormal bone is present. Weakened bones can be due to osteoporosis, metastatic bone cancer, bone infection, prolonged used of oral steroids or as a side affect from other medications.
Compression fracture risk increases with age, post-menopause and with smoking. Even second hand smoke increases your risk of fractures. Very thin individuals with low body mass are also at increased risk. Making sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D is important, especially for women, early in life to achieve ideal bone mass. Avoiding smoking – including second hand smoke – and adding weight-bearing exercises will also improve your bone density. No matter what age you are, including weight training and strengthening exercises as part of your regular exercise program is essential to good health.
Symptoms of compression factors vary considerably. There are many individuals who have no pain or dysfunction at all. But there are also those who have considerable back pain and disability. As the amount of compression increases and the number of compressed vertebrae increase, there is alteration of the spine’s natural curvature. This can affect everything from walking and balance, to the ability to take deep breaths.
Like any other fracture, a compression fracture of the vertebral body can heal and when it does any associated pain can improve dramatically. However, the risk of another fracture occurring goes up substantially. In fact, 19% of individuals will have another fracture within a year. Patients with fractures as a result of osteoporosis should get x-rays on follow up at 6 weeks and 3 months to ensure that there is no progression of the fractures.
Conservative treatment may consist of bracing, relative rest, ice, heat, medication and appropriate exercises. Lifestyle changes are also recommended to reduce the risk of future compression fractures. The best thing you can do at any stage of life is focus on prevention. Keeping your bones in good health will pay off in the long run.