Spine Fractures

What is a spine (vertebral) fracture?

A broken bone in your spine is called a spine or vertebral fracture. It is the most common fracture or break that occurs as a result of osteoporosis.

How does a spine fracture happen?

When someone has osteoporosis they have thinner, weaker bones that are more likely to break. People with osteoporosis may experience a spine fracture that occurs with minimal trauma or even spontaneously without any event or trauma. It may result from routine movement such as bending over to pick up an object, even as light as a newspaper off the floor. Some individuals have experienced fractures when performing daily housework such as making the bed or vacuuming the floor. People with osteoporosis may develop spine fractures as a result of severe coughing or sneezing. Even an affectionate hug from a loved one has been reported to cause a spine fracture in individuals with advanced osteoporosis.

Do spine fractures cause pain?

Some people will not have any symptoms or pain as a result of a spine fracture. Other individuals experience severe pain. It still is not clear why some people have pain and others do not. A fracture of one or more bones in the spine can cause a sharp, stabbing pain and/or persistent back pain or discomfort. Sometimes a spine fracture can even irritate the surrounding nerve roots and produce pain that radiates around the side of the abdomen or chest. Depending upon the location and severity of the spine fracture, individuals may experience difficulty breathing, stomach pain, or digestive discomfort.

People who have multiple spine fractures may experience chronic back pain. The abnormal stretching of muscles, ligaments, and tendons as a result of the change in the shape of the chest and back may cause this discomfort. Following strategies for safe movement along with taking short rest periods may ease your discomfort and allow you to perform your usual daily activities.

How can spine fractures change my appearance?

Spine fractures may affect other parts of your body besides the broken bones. Multiple fractures of the spine can change your appearance by causing loss of height, a curving of the shoulders and back, and a thickening waistline. You may notice that your clothing does not fit the same way. Your shirts and jackets may pull across your back. The hemlines of your skirts and pants may not hang properly. It is often difficult to find comfortable, stylish clothes.

Does a spine fracture increase my risk for other fractures?

  • If you have a spine fracture, it is important that it is diagnosed and treated quickly.  A vertebral fracture greatly increases your risk for more spine as well as other fractures. If you have a fracture in adulthood that occurs with minimal trauma, most commonly occurring after a fall from standing height, it should be taken seriously as a warning that you may have osteoporosis and be at risk for future fractures.
  • If you have had a spine fracture and have not yet had a bone mineral density (BMD)test, speak to your healthcare provider about having this simple, noninvasive test. A BMD test can diagnose normal bone mass, low bone mass, or osteoporosis. Low bone mass is the single most important risk factor for fracture. A BMD test can be used by your healthcare provider to help predict your chances for fracturing in the future and to help monitor your response to treatment.
  • When appropriate, there are FDA-approved medications that can be prescribed by your healthcare provider to greatly reduce the risk for bone loss and future fractures.

What is the treatment for spine fractures?

Everyone experiences pain differently and the recuperation period is unique for each individual. The recovery period may be different for you and therefore it is important for you to listen to your own body. When you experience pain and fatigue, you might need to rest more. While you are recuperating, you might need assistance with dressing, bathing, getting in or out of a chair and/or bed.

Surgery is typically not required and the healing process includes rest, reducing activities, heating pads, ice packs, and pain medications as prescribed by your healthcare provider. Some healthcare providers may suggest that you wear a spinal support device or brace. In more severe cases, there are special surgical procedures that may be considered. Your healthcare provider will know what is right for you.

Rest is important, but as soon as you can tolerate it, speak to your healthcare provider how to get moving safely! Activity helps maintain bone density and can increase muscle strength. Speak to your healthcare provider about getting a consultation with a physical therapist or occupational therapist to individualize a plan for safe movement and physical activity that is right for you.

How long is the recovery period?

When you have a broken bone in the spine, it usually takes several weeks to a few months to heal completely. Age and other existing medical conditions may influence the length of the recovery period following the fracture.

What can I do to promote healthy bones?

It is always important to follow the universal strategies for healthy bones. These strategies include:

Eat a variety of healthy (nutrient-rich) foods. Make half your plate vegetables and fruit, add lean protein, include whole grains, select heart-healthy fats, and remember to include a calcium-rich food or drink at each meal. For more information about healthy food choices, go to www.choosemyplate.gov

Reach and maintain a healthy weight. Eat the amount of calories and protein you need. The amount that you need will depend on your height, weight, age, and medical condition.

Get the calcium you need. It is recommended that adults consume 1000 to 1200 milligrams (mg) of calcium each day. It is best to get calcium from the foods you eat. Foods rich in calcium such as low fat dairy foods (milk, yogurt, cheese), dark green leafy vegetables (bok choy, broccoli, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, and turnip greens), canned fish (sardines, salmon) eaten with bones, or calcium-fortified (with calcium added) foods. The body uses calcium best when it is spaced through the day. Try to eat a calcium rich food at each meal or snack. If you think that you are not getting the recommended amount of calcium in the foods you eat, it is important to consult with your healthcare provider to find out if a calcium supplement is right for you. Calcium supplements should not be taken without the advice of your healthcare provider. Too much calcium taken on a routine basis, particularly from supplements, may be harmful.

Get the recommended amount of vitamin D. There are only a few good natural sources of vitamin D including fatty fish such as catfish, eel, mackerel, salmon, sardines, tuna and shiitake mushrooms. Small amounts of vitamin D are added to all cow’s milk, some types of beverages (almond, coconut, rice, or soy beverages and orange juice), yogurt, cheese, and nutrition bars. Adults under 50 years of age should consume 400-800 international units (IU) or 10-20 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D daily. Adults 50 years of age and above should consume 800-1000 IU or 20-25mcg daily. Your healthcare provider may recommend more vitamin D than above stated amounts based on your individual needs.

Be physically active. Your bones get stronger and denser when you make them work. Walking, climbing stairs, and dancing are impact (or weight-bearing) exercises that strengthen your bones by moving your body against gravity when you are standing. Resistance exercises such as lifting weights or using exercise bands strengthens your bones and your muscles too! Tai Chi is an example of physical activity that improves posture and balance to help decrease the risk for falls and fractures. Exercise can be easy; try 10 minutes at a time, adding the minutes up to reach your goal.

Don’t smoke. If you do, STOP. Call 1-800-NYQUITS for information about how to quit.

Limit alcohol. Before drinking alcohol, it is important to speak to your healthcare provider about possible interactions with your medication or your medical condition. Too much alcohol can be harmful for your bones and your overall health.

Take action to prevent falls. Most broken bones occur as a result of a fall that can be prevented. Some actions to prevent falls at home include using nightlights, removing or securing scatter rugs, and getting rid of clutter.

Strong bones are a lifelong commitment. It is never too early or too late to take the steps to promote stronger bones. At any age you can reduce your risk for falling and breaking a bone.