What Is Vertebral Fracture?

A spinal fracture is a dislocation or fracture of the vertebrae (backbone) and can occur anywhere along the spine. Most spinal fractures are caused from injury or trauma from car accidents, falls, sports or some sort of high velocity impact. Injuries from these accidents can range from mild muscle and ligament strains to more serious fractures and spinal cord damage. Minor fractures of the spine can be healed with rest and medication, however, more severe fractures might require surgery to realign the bones. If left untreated, spinal fractures can lead to permanent spinal cord injury, nerve damage and paralysis.

Types of spinal fractures are:

  • Compression fracture: A compression fracture is usually caused by osteoporosis, a tumor or other abnormalities in the spine. The front vertebra fractures and deteriorates, while the back of the vertebra remains stable.
  • Axial burst fracture: An axial burst fracture is caused by the loss of height on both the front and back of vertebra due to a fall or vertical impact.
  • Chance fracture: Fracture caused by the pulling apart of the vertebrae due to a violent forward flexed injury. A chance fracture usually occurs as the result of a car accident.

Symptoms of a Spinal Fracture

Spinal fracture symptoms vary based on the severity and location of the injury. Not all fractures result in a spinal cord injury and rarely is the spinal cord completely severed. The most common symptom of a spinal fracture is pain in the back that worsens with movement.

Spinal fracture symptoms may include:

  • Pain in the back or neck
  • Tingling or numbness
  • Weakness or paralysis of limbs
  • Uncontrolled muscle spasms
  • Loss of urinary or bowel control

Loss of consciousness due to high-energy trauma requires immediate emergency evacuation and treatment.

Causes of a Spinal Fracture

Spinal fractures are a serious orthopaedic injury primarily resulting from high velocity impacts including:

  • Car or motorcycle accident
  • Fall from height
  • Sports accident
  • Violent act (gunshot wound or assault)

Other conditions that cause spinal fractures include:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Spinal tumors
  • Underlying conditions that weaken the vertebrae

Diagnosis of Vertebral Fracture

Spinal fractures require an evaluation from an Emergency Medicine specialist. Depending on injuries, other diagnostic tests your doctor may recommend include:

  • X-rays to check for fractures or abnormal movement of the spine
  • Spine CT scan to view changes in the bone structure
  • MRI scan to determine soft tissue damage to the ligaments and discs, and assess spinal cord injury

Treating Spinal Fractures

When a spinal fracture occurs, the first step in treating the fracture is to stabilize the individual. This may be done through the use of a backboard, stretcher or cervical collar to prevent the person from moving and sustaining further injuries. Once stabilized, Penn emergency medicine physicians will determine whether surgical treatment is necessary depending on the severity and location of the fracture. Some minor fractures can be treated non-surgically with cervical bracing, rest and time. Surgery may be recommended for those with unstable fractures to help relieve pressure on the spinal cord and stabilize the spine.

After emergency treatments are implemented, treatment for spinal fractures may include:

  • Physical rehabilitation and therapy
  • The use of medications to help control issues such as:
    • Bowel and bladder dysfunctions
    • Pain
    • Muscle spasticity
    • Blood pressure
    • Other health issues
  • Follow up care with a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist who can assist and oversee a long-term rehab therapy plan.

Penn Programs & Services for Vertebral Fracture

person grabbing their back in pain
Penn Spine Center

The Penn Spine Center offers diagnosis, treatment and management for chronic and acute spine conditions, ranging from the most common to the most complex.

Sunnie spine patient story back fracture walking outside with friend

Sunnie's Story

Fractured Spine

Sunnie, who was 80 at the time fell hard on the sidewalk, was rushed to a nearby emergency room, where she was told that she’d fractured her spine in multiple spots. But, because of her age, she was deemed too high-risk for surgery.

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