As we age, it’s normal to experience back pain more often than when we were younger. But not all back pain should be ignored, especially if you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis or low bone density. It may be a symptom of a spinal compression fracture.
Also referred to as vertebral compression fractures (VCFs), this type of fracture is common among women and men over the age of 50. More common in women, an estimated 25% of postmenopausal women will experience at least one in their lifetime.
For elderly patients, the pain and immobility caused by these fractures can potentially diminish their quality of life and make it harder for them to live independently. Diagnosing and treating spinal compression fractures early on is key to preventing these devastating long-term effects.
Orthopedic spine specialist Dr. Geoffrey Cronen explains the potential long-term effects of spinal compression fractures, as well as the treatment options that are currently available to relieve pain and prevent future fractures.
Most spinal compression fractures occur gradually. This can make them tricky to identify early on, especially if they only cause mild back pain.
The following conditions can weaken the bones in the spinal column (also called vertebrae) over time and make it easier for a fracture to occur when you bend down or forward.
- Osteoporosis. The most common cause of spinal fractures, osteoporosis occurs when bones lose minerals faster than the body can replace them. As the disease progresses, the affected bones become weaker and more brittle, making them more susceptible to fracture. Osteoporosis can also cause the vertebrae to flatten, resulting in a rounded spine and more pressure on these vertebrae.
- Metastatic disease. While the vast majority of spinal compression fractures are related to osteoporosis, they can also be caused by bone metastasis—cancer that originates in a tumor elsewhere in the body and migrates to the bones. As these tumors grow, they can weaken the vertebrae and cause a compression fracture.
It’s uncommon, but trauma to the spine, due to a fall or other incident, can also sometimes cause a spinal compression fracture to occur in an otherwise healthy patient.
Long-Term Effects of Spinal Compression Fractures
Two-thirds of spinal compression fractures go undiagnosed because people assume back pain is just a normal part of getting older or that it will resolve on its own. Often, patients don’t seek treatment until multiple compression fractures have occurred.
Possible long-term effects of spinal compression fractures include:
- Chronic pain. Over time, multiple fractures can cause the main portion of the vertebrae (the bones that make up the spine) to collapse, causing a great deal of pain and even altering the shape of your spine. In older patients, the chronic pain caused by vertebral compression fractures can lead to a gradual loss of mobility.
- Loss of height. As the spine weakens and changes shape, some people may lose height as their spine becomes shorter.
- Kyphosis. Severe spinal compression fractures may cause a condition called kyphosis. Kyphosis is a forward curvature of the spine that results in a stooped (hunched) posture.
Patients who experience kyphosis or a similar bending of the spine may also experience symptoms other than back pain. That’s because kyphosis can place additional strain on the body.
In severe cases, regular functions like walking, standing, looking up, and breathing can become strenuous and challenging. Patients with severe kyphosis may also have trouble swallowing and experience acid reflux due to added pressure on the digestive tract.
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Luckily, many of the long-term effects of spinal compression fractures can be prevented or lessened with early intervention from an orthopedic doctor.
Most compression fractures heal on their own without surgical intervention. Your doctor may recommend short-term bed rest followed by a carefully guided and paced return to exercise and activity. An orthotic device like a back brace may also be recommended to reduce pain and provide support while you heal.
For patients with fractures caused by osteoporosis, an orthopedic specialist like Dr. Cronen can prescribe bone-building medications to slow bone density loss and help prevent future damage and the harmful long-term effects that may come with it.
If a spinal compression fracture has been confirmed by an x-ray and has not responded to non-surgical treatments, one of the following surgical treatments may be recommended.
- Vertebroplasty. Using x-ray technology, acrylic bone cement is injected into the vertebrae to stabilize the bone fragments and provide pain relief. An outpatient procedure, patients who undergo vertebroplasty can go home the same day.
- Kyphoplasty. Like vertebroplasty, kyphoplasty uses acrylic bone cement to stabilize the spine and eliminate pain. However, the procedure can also restore some vertebral height, so it is typically only recommended for patients with more severe vertebral collapse.
- Spinal fusion surgery. Spinal fusion surgery involves fusing one or more damaged vertebrae together to eliminate motion between them, providing stability and pain relief. The procedure is typically reserved for patients with severe pain that hasn’t responded to other treatments, or those who have experienced complications from another spinal surgery.
Talk with an Orthopedic Spine Specialist
If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis or low bone density, it’s especially important to listen to your body and monitor your bone health. Through early intervention, the worst long-term effects of spinal compression fractures can be avoided.
Orthopedic spine specialist Dr. Geoffrey Cronen can help you develop a customized treatment plan to prevent bone loss and manage back pain caused by spinal compression fractures. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Cronen at our North Tampa or Wiregrass office to learn more. Telemedicine visits are also available.
About Dr. Geoffrey Cronen
Dr. Geoffrey Cronen is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon at Florida Medical Clinic with extensive experience in corrective spinal surgery. He specializes in the surgical and nonsurgical correction of vertebral compression fractures and kyphosis, among other spinal deformities.
Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Every patient is different, so talk with your orthopedic doctor to learn what treatment options are best for you.