When it comes to spinal conditions, the terms medical professionals use can get a bit confusing. For example, one spine doctor might tell you that you have a collapsed vertebrae while another will say it’s a compression fracture. Compression fracture vs. collapsed vertebrae, how do we tell them apart? The truth is, these terms, and conditions, are generally intertwined.
Compression fracture vs. collapsed vertebrae -which is more common?
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, compression fractures “are almost twice as common as other fractures typically linked to osteoporosis, such as broken hips and wrists.”
What is a compression fracture?
A compression fracture is a break in the vertebrae that typically causes the spinal bones to collapse due to the fracture. This may result in extreme back pain because the collapse narrows the area around your spinal cord.
Vertebrae compression fractures can also cause spinal deformity, which is most often realized as a hunched-over posture, as well as loss of height.
Where do compression fractures occur?
These fractures can occur anywhere along the spine but are most commonly seen in the thoracic spine, or the upper back, at T-10 to T-12. We rarely see them above T7. Compression fractures are also commonly found in the lumbar spine, or lower back.
There are three types of compression fractures:
- Wedge fractures — The most common type of compression fracture, occurs on the front side of the vertebrae. The front of the vertebra collapses while the back of the affected vertebra stays intact.
- Crush fractures — With this type of fracture, the entire bone breaks.
- Burst fractures — This is the most unstable type of compression fracture, causing loss of height in the front as well as the back walls of the vertebral body.
When do collapsed vertebrae occur?
The No.1 cause of a collapsed vertebrae or compression fracture is osteoporosis. And because osteoporosis is on the rise, so, too, are compression fractures.
The National Library of Medicine says more than 200 million people worldwide suffer from osteoporosis; there are nearly 700,000 osteoporosis patients each year.
What is osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a bone disease. Bone mass in humans generally stops increasing around the age of 30. Our bones then become increasingly weak as we get older, which makes the bones even more likely to break.
While osteoporosis can affect both men and women in their later years, it most often strikes postmenopausal women. In fact, four times as many women have osteoporosis as men. Other risk factors for compression fractures include:
- Having a family history of osteoporosis
- Calcium or Vitamin D deficiencies
- A period of prolonged bed rest or general lack of physical activity
- Taking certain medications, including medicines for arthritis and asthma as well as some cancer drugs
- Having a small body frame
While osteoporosis can’t be reversed, early diagnosis can help address patients’ pain at an early stage and help keep their condition from degenerating.
Compression fracture treatments
With care from a spine specialist and strict adherence to doctor’s orders, compression fractures can heal without surgical intervention. Patients initially diagnosed with compression fractures may be given a treatment plan, including bed rest, a back brace, and pain medication.
If significant improvement is not achieved, surgery may be an option. Surgical treatment for compression fractures is still relatively rare, but recent advancements have made it a more viable option for those whose condition is not vastly better after more conservative treatments.
Surgery for compression fractures used to involve open procedures followed by a long and painful recovery, which is why it was generally reserved only for those with extreme cases and pronounced deformity. Today, if surgery is needed, there is a simple, minimally invasive surgical procedure called kyphoplasty.
Kyphoplasty is a procedure that was designed to easily and quickly reduce or eliminate the pain of the vertebrae fracture by stabilizing the bone. During the procedure:
- A small balloon is inflated in the vertebrae, which creates a void in the bone for cement to sit in.
- After the balloon is inflated, it is then deflated and removed.
- Next, the cement is placed into the void through small needles.
- The cement hardens and stabilizes inside the vertebra.
Kyphoplasty is typically a quick procedure with tiny incisions and no sutures. It’s easy to tolerate, resulting in minimal pain from the surgery itself and greatly reduced or nonexistent pain from the fracture shortly after it’s over. Kyphoplasty typically requires only a local anesthetic and can take as little as 15 minutes.
Most patients go home the same day and need only over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to manage minimal post-surgical discomfort. If more than one vertebra is involved, there may be an overnight hospital stay after surgery.
The risk of complications for kyphoplasty, and all minimally invasive procedures, is low. We generally encourage patients to resume most normal activities right away.
A side benefit of kyphoplasty
I mentioned the possibility of height loss related to compression fractures earlier. First, it’s important to look at the reality of height and how it is affected by the aging process.
You’ve probably heard that we all tend to shrink as we age, but did you know why? It’s a normal part of life that, around our mid-30s, we begin losing some height. Men typically lose an inch over time between the ages of 30 and 70, while women may lose two inches. This happens because the vertebrae start to shrink as we get older and the space between your spinal joints narrows.
Osteoporosis causes more significant bone loss, and in combination with compression fractures, there can be a more pronounced loss of height. People with compression fractures often have a hunched-over posture; that condition is known as kyphosis.
The kyphoplasty procedure helps to elevate the collapsed vertebral endplate, resulting in restored height and corrected posture. In some studies, kyphoplasty was shown to restore up to 93 percent of lost height due to compression factors.
What is vertebroplasty?
Vertebroplasty is an alternate minimally invasive procedure to address and correct spinal compression fractures. A very small incision is made during vertebroplasty, and cement is injected into the fractured bone using a hollow needle to stabilize the fractured bone. No balloon is used.
This is an outpatient procedure that takes just 15 minutes and is suture-less. Typically, pain reduction is felt immediately after the procedure.
When is it time to see a doctor?
Ready to get your compression fracture treatment and learn more about kyphoplasty? If you’ve been suffering from chronic back pain and it’s not getting better, it might be time to find a leading spine specialist. The good news for those dealing with back pain due to compression fractures, or another spinal condition, is that treating back pain with minimally invasive procedures is easier than ever, with outpatient treatments, small incisions, and a quicker recovery time instead of a long hospital stay.
If you’re ready to address your back pain or if you want more information about treatment options, contact the DISC Spine Institute, experts in minimally invasive treatments, the most effective medical procedures to treat and eliminate chronic back pain.
With several DISC spine centers located throughout Dallas-Fort Worth and staffed by top Board-certified orthopedic spine surgeons, the DISC Spine Institute is well-prepared to help patients through their spinal conditions to get back to a pain-free life.