What Is a Vertebral Compression Fracture? Everything to Know

Medically Reviewed By Angelica Balingit, MD
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The bones in your spine are called vertebrae. A vertebral compression fracture occurs when a vertebra collapses. A sudden, high-impact injury may cause severe pain in your back as well as your arms and legs. This could indicate a compression fracture.

According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, there are around 1.5 million cases of vertebral compression fractures each year. Osteoporosis, which causes decreased bone density, is a common risk factor for compression fractures.

This article discusses the symptoms and causes of compression fractures. It also covers treatment options, when to contact a doctor, and more.

What are the symptoms of a compression fracture?

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Compression fracture symptoms depend on what caused the break.

If a sudden, severe back injury caused the fracture, you may feel:

  • intense, sharp pain
  • pain in your arms and legs
  • numbness or tingling in your arms and legs

If osteoporosis is the cause of the compression fracture, you might not notice symptoms right away. As the compression fracture worsens, you might gradually begin to feel pain.

Without treatment, osteoporosis may progress over time. It can eventually cause you to lose up to 6 inches in height.

What causes a compression fracture?

The spine is divided into the following sections:

  • 7 cervical or neck vertebrae
  • 12 thoracic or middle back vertebrae
  • 5 lumbar or lower back vertebrae

According to a 2022 review, around 60–75% of vertebral compression fractures happen in the thoracolumbar junction. This is the section of the spine that includes vertebrae T12 to L2. Around 30% of fractures occur between vertebrae L2–L5.

Osteoporosis is a common cause of compression fractures. It leads to a loss of bone density, making your bones more fragile and prone to breaks.

A severe back injury can also cause a compression fracture, even in people with healthy bones. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, causes of severe back injuries that can lead to a compression fracture include:

  • car accident
  • sports injury
  • hard fall

What are the treatments for a compression fracture?

A back compression fracture can take about 3 months to heal, according to the Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Most of the time, healthcare professionals recommend nonsurgical treatment for a compression fracture. You may need to take over-the-counter pain relief medication and limit your activity during treatment.

Your doctor may also recommend physical therapy to rehabilitate your bones. They may recommend back braces to limit movement and support your back while it heals.

Learn more about treatments for compression fractures.

Surgery

You may be able to treat a compression fracture with nonsurgical treatments. However, in certain cases, your doctor may recommend surgery. For example, they may suggest surgery for recent fractures with severe pain or limited function, despite conservative therapy.

There are several types of surgical procedures your doctor may recommend for a compression fracture.

Kyphoplasty is a type of surgery that involves inflating a small balloon to lift the vertebra. Bone cement is then used to fill the space and stabilize the fracture. Learn more about kyphoplasty.

Vertebroplasty is a similar procedure to kyphoplasty. It involves injecting bone cement into the vertebrae.

Learn more about compression fracture surgery.

When should I see a doctor?

It is important to contact your doctor if you experience an injury to your back. They can perform a physical examination and may arrange for tests. These can help them examine your back or spine more closely to identify potential damage.

How do doctors diagnose a compression fracture?

To assist with diagnosing a vertebral compression fracture, your doctor may perform imaging tests.

An X-ray can help with diagnosing an osteoporotic fracture. Your doctor will look for signs including:

  • decreased radiodensity
  • loss of structure of the trabecular bone
  • vertebral anterior wedging
  • loss of vertebral height of at least 6cm

Your doctor may order a CT scan and MRI if you have experienced significant trauma. This can help with identifying fractures or other injuries to your spinal column.

Can I prevent a compression fracture?

You may not be able to prevent a compression fracture that results from osteoporosis or trauma. However, there are steps you can take to help strengthen your bones. These include:

  • weight-bearing exercises such as walking
  • resistance exercises such as sit-ups and squats
  • getting enough calcium and vitamin D in your diet

If you have osteoporosis or another health condition, contact your doctor before beginning an exercise regime. They can recommend exercises that are safe for you.

Find out more about how to avoid compression fractures with osteoporosis.

What are the risk factors for a compression fracture?

People experiencing menopause are at risk of compression fractures. This is due to an increased risk of developing osteoporosis.

Compression fractures are unlikely in people without osteoporosis, according to Merck Manual. However, you may be at risk of a compression fracture if you frequently play sports.

What are the complications of a compression fracture?

You may experience complications as a result of a vertebral compression fracture. These can include:

  • kyphosis, where the upper back becomes rounded or “hunchbacked”
  • damage or irritation to the nerve roots
  • additional fractures

Contact your doctor if you have concerns about the possible complications of vertebral spinal compression.

Other frequently asked questions

Here are some more frequently asked questions about compression fractures.

Is walking good for compression fractures?

Walking may be helpful for a compression fracture, as it can encourage blood flow to the area. This may help it to heal faster, according to NYU Langone Health.

Will a compression fracture heal itself?

A compression fracture may heal by itself within around 3 months. During this time, you may need to take pain relief medication, and your doctor may recommend physical therapy. In some cases, surgery may be necessary.

Is a compression fracture considered a broken bone?

A fracture is a break in the bone. A compression fracture occurs as a result of pressure on the bone.

Summary

A vertebral compression fracture can occur as a result of osteoporosis. It may also occur due to extreme trauma, such as from a sports injury or vehicle accident.

Symptoms you may experience with a compression fracture include pain in your back, arms, and legs. Your arms and legs may also feel tingly or numb.

Contact your doctor if you have experienced a back injury or have concerns about compression fractures. They can perform imaging tests to provide you with an accurate diagnosis.

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Medical Reviewer: Angelica Balingit, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Oct 14
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