In humans, the vertebral column consists of 24 articulating vertebrae – bones, in layman’s terms – within which the spinal cord within its spinal canal passes through. These bones then serve two essential functions: first, for the support of the trunk, head and shoulders; and second, for the protection of the spinal cord. A compression fracture on one of these bones then affects the entire body mainly because of the pressure on the spinal cord and the surrounding nerves.
It must be noted that the vertebral column is divided into three major parts, namely:
- The cervical vertebrae are the seven bones in the neck, which connect the head as well as the head to the shoulders and the body. When one of these seven bones is broken, it is called a cervical fracture.
- The thoracic vertebrae are the twelve bones extending from the bottom of the neck to the lower back. These bones are the most likely site for a compression fracture because of their thinner and weaker nature compared with the neck and lumbar vertebrae. Small amounts of pressure can be placed on the thoracic vertebrae but when a high-force source of trauma is applied, the bones are easily overwhelmed.
- The lumbar vertebrae are the five strongest and largest bones in the spinal column that comprise the lower back.
Healthy vertebrae can absorb and/or withstand pressure and shock from external sources as well as normal wear and tear caused by everyday movements like bending, twisting and arching. Even the shock of a sudden force can be absorbed by a healthy spinal column. But when the force, pressure or shock applied is too strong for the vertebrae or the vertebrae is too weak, a compression fracture is the most likely result. The force, pressure and shock can come from a fall, a car accident, and a forceful jump while the weakened bones can be the result of a systemic disease like osteoporosis, scoliosis, and cancer.
Be sure to notify your doctor when you experience one or more of the following symptoms that indicate spinal fracture:
- Back pain, which can either be sudden and severe or gradual yet worsens over time
- Worsening of pain when walking and standing up while lying down provides a small measure of relief
- Difficulty characterized by pain when twisting, bending and arching
- Loss of height
- Spine deformity (i.e., noticeable hunchback shape)
- Stomach complaints (i.e., constipation, loss of appetite and weight loss)
- Hip pain
- Breathing problems since the lungs are being compressed
Keep in mind that the symptoms will be different for each individual with a suspected compression fracture. Your doctor will perform diagnostic procedures like CT scans for a definitive diagnosis.
In trauma situations, the affected part should be immobilized until x-rays are reviewed by a doctor. When a vertebral fracture is diagnosed, your doctor will adopt one or all of the following methods depending on your case:
- Conservative treatment consisting of a neck or back brace to stabilize the affected areas and, thus, lessen trauma
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to lessen the pain
- Surgical procedures like kyphoplasty and vertebroplasty
- Decreased level of activity
A compression fracture is a serious matter. Seek medical attention immediately so that you can regain mobility.