thoracic kyphosis

Spinal compression fractures in the spine are a common problem, especially in older people. As bone density tends to decline with age, older people are more vulnerable to these compression fractures. 

Spinal compression fractures sometimes go undiagnosed. However, the patient may develop a curved spine. Any spine injury can cause wider issues in the body, though.

The good news is that most compression fractures heal with little or no medical intervention at all. But, on the other hand, a cracked vertebra always hurts. 

This article explains what compression fractures are, how they happen, what symptoms they produce. Their treatment options—as with most medical conditions, diagnosing a fractured vertebra is challenging because the most common symptom – pain – is a symptom of other things.


What Are Compression Fractures?

The spine consists of 24 bony vertebrae connected by ligaments and tendons to each other and other parts of the body. Those bones protect the spinal cord. 

The discs between those bones contain pathways that allow nerves to reach the spinal cord. In addition, the soft tissue between each vertebra allows plenty of latitude for front-to-back and side-to-side movement. 

In short, the spine is a key part of the body and is connected to most of it via nerves or muscles. Therefore, any spine problem can radiate out to produce symptoms in back muscles, legs, digestion, breathing, and posture.

Aging can take a toll on the back in two ways. First, osteoporosis, a loss of bone mass, also weakens the individual vertebrae. Second, a weaker bone is more likely to fracture under stress when age or disease has weakened the bones. 

As a result, seniors are more likely to suffer vertebral fractures, but they can happen to anyone who puts a little too much stress on their spine. Second, the soft tissue in the spine, the discs, can degrade too.

This is the type of vertebral compression fracture most often caused by osteoporosis. As the name ‘compression fracture’ suggests, they’re defined by a vertebra that has decreased in height by 15% to 20% because of fracture. 

These fractures tend to happen in the lower part of the spine, below T7, in other words. These spinal compression fractures are especially common in senior citizens.

A spinal compression fracture usually happens in the front of the vertebra. These fractures are also called wedge fractures and, the good news is that wedge fractures tend to be stable. 

This means that compression fractures in the vertebra usually don’t cause any spinal cord or nerve damage.



Acute back pain is the first sign of most vertebral fractures. However, chronic and severe back pain may also result. In addition, pain when moving side to side is common. 

Pain that radiates down the legs is also an indicator, as is back pain that lingers and worsens.


Other symptoms may include:

  • Loss of height
  • A bulge around one or more vertebrae
  • Hip pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Digestive issues

The victim of a compression fracture may also experience back deformity, lost height, crowded internal organs, and loss of fitness. 

In addition, chronic pain and reduced mobility tend to keep the individual from exercising, which results in declining physical fitness and even loss of muscle mass.

In older people, the cracked vertebrae may cause an arched back. As the fractures are almost always in the front of the spine, the victim tends to bow. This arched back, technically called thoracic kyphosis, is sometimes called a dowager’s hump.

Diagnosis may require a CAT scan, MRI, or x-ray to diagnose a compression fracture and evaluate it. Low bone density increases the risk of these fractures.


How Serious are Vertebral Compression Fractures?

Most compression fractures are not that serious. Many of those fractures are never even diagnosed because the fracture is so slight. These facts don’t mean spinal compression fractures are trivial at all. Apart from the chronic pain, the damage only gets worse over time.


What are the Treatment Options?

A spinal compression fracture can be treated in several ways, including with surgery. The non-surgical options include:


  • Bed rest – Many fractures heal independently, so physicians may prescribe a few days of inactivity and then nothing for up to three months.
  • Back brace – Sometimes, fractures don’t need anything more than support while the bone repairs itself. A doctor may prescribe back support for those cases, which keeps the bones stable while the patient recovers. A back brace will restrict the patient’s movement to help with healing. That restricted movement can weaken back muscles, increasing the risk of other back problems.
  • Pain management – Pain medicine is a standard part of back pain treatment. Some patients do fine with over-the-counter pain medicine. Some patients do need opioid-based medicine for their severe pain.
  • Supplements – In conjunction with other treatments, a physician may prescribe vitamin D, bisphosphonates, and/or calcium.
  • Exercise – Exercise with a back fracture might seem like a bad idea, but weight-bearing exercises may also be prescribed.


Sometimes surgery is unavoidable. In that case, surgeons have three options available to them:


  • Vertebroplasty – This is a minimally invasive procedure using a needle guided by x-rays. The surgeon uses that needle to inject bone cement into the fracture. The bone cement hardens in as little as 10 minutes. Many patients can go home the same day.
  • Kyphoplasty – Bone deformations may need to be treated with this variation of vertebroplasty. In this procedure, the surgeon inflates a small balloon to create space to inject bone cement into.
  • Spinal fusion surgery – A surgeon attaches plates or rods to neighboring vertebrae to keep them stable. This operation controls movement and compression to reduce pain.


Your surgeon will discuss these surgical and non-surgical options with you and explain why they’ve chosen a certain approach to treat your compression fracture.


Comprehensive Spine Care in Westminster and West Ridge, CO

We have experience in the diagnosis and treatment of many spine problems, including fractures. So whatever happened to your spine, our doctors can evaluate the problem and prescribe the right course of treatment.