Compression fractures are small breaks in the vertebrae (bones in your spine). They’re more common in women over 50. As bones weaken with age and osteoporosis, they’re more likely to break. Over time, breaks in the vertebrae cause the spine to collapse and curve over. Treatment includes rest, medications, braces and minimally invasive surgery.
Compression fractures usually happen in the thoracic (middle) part of the spine, especially in the lower thoracic area. Providers also call them vertebral compression fractures (VCF). They often result from osteoporosis. But they can also happen after trauma (such as a car crash) or as a result of tumors on the spine.
Providers treat compression fractures with medications and a special type of back brace. Some people require a minimally invasive procedure to strengthen the vertebrae and stabilize their spine.
How common are compression fractures?
Compression fractures are common. Almost 1 million compression fractures happen every year in the United States. These spine fractures are more common in older women who have osteoporosis (a condition that causes bones to become weak and brittle). They also happen in older men.
Providers estimate that 1 in 4 women over 50 years old have at least one compression fracture. They’re more likely to happen in women who’ve been through menopause. Nearly half of all people over 80 have had a compression fracture.
What are the symptoms of compression fractures?
- Back pain, which can come on suddenly and last a long time (chronic back pain). It usually develops anywhere between the shoulders and the lower back. Pain usually gets better when you lie down, and it worsens when you stand or walk.
- Decreased mobility or flexibility in the spine. You may not be able to twist or bend over.
- Hunched over appearance (some people call this curved upper back a “dowager’s hump” or hunchback).
- Loss of height as the vertebrae compress and the back curves.
- Pinched nerves and nerve damage, which can cause tingling and numbness in the back and difficulty walking.
- Problems controlling the bladder or bowels (these symptoms happen with severe, untreated fractures).
How do healthcare providers diagnose compression fractures?
To diagnose a compression fracture, your provider will examine you and ask about your symptoms. During the exam, your provider:
- Checks your spine’s alignment and your posture.
- Gently pushes on different areas of your back to identify the source of pain.
- Looks for signs of nerve damage, which may include numbness, tingling or muscle weakness.