What are spinal fractures?

A spinal fracture is simply a break in one or more bones in the spinal column. Spinal fractures occur when any of the 33 vertebrae that make up the spine experience trauma, or when degenerative or other bone-compromising diseases weaken the vertebrae.

A common cause for spinal fractures, especially in women, is osteoporosis. Those with osteoporosis often sustain vertebral compression fractures — the breaking and collapsing of the bone — in the course of doing everyday tasks such as lifting, bending or twisting. It is also common for people with osteoporosis to fracture their vertebrae during a fall.

A vertebral compression fracture can be accompanied by sudden sharp pain, chronic dull pain or no pain at all. Vertebral compression fractures can cause sharp pain at the time of the fracture that evolves into a more chronic, diffuse pain after several days or weeks.

Spinal fractures can also be caused by bone weakening due to cancer and other chronic disorders.

Trauma is also a leading cause for spinal fractures. Spine center doctors are part of the UC Davis trauma center — one of the three busiest level 1 trauma centers in the United States — and treat patients from Northern California, Eastern Nevada and Southern Oregon.

When spine fractures are accompanied by trauma or pressure to the spinal cord, injury to the nerves of the spinal cord (the main link between the body and the brain) is the result. Spinal cord injury (SCI) can cause additional symptoms such as impaired bodily functions or numbness, weakness, or tingling in the body or limbs.

Most individuals suffering from severe spine trauma will require extensive specialized evaluation within UC Davis Health System. That evaluation often begins in the emergency room. With the region's only level 1 trauma center, UC Davis Health System is expertly equipped to handle even the most complicated cases.

How are spinal fractures diagnosed?

Your doctor will evaluate your medical history and perform an examination. To help confirm your diagnosis, he or she may prescribe imaging procedures, such as X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or computerized tomography (CT scan). A bone scan may be advised if the age of the fracture is unknown.

What are the treatment options?

If the vertebrae are stable, a combination of rest, bracing (to immobilize the neck or back), and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory and pain medications may be all that is necessary to bring relief.

If the vertebrae are unstable and/or the fracture endangers the spinal cord or nerves, two minimally invasive procedures, vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty, are available to stabilize the fractured vertebrae.

With vertebroplasty, bone cement is injected through a small needle into the vertebral body under high pressure. Within a few hours, the cement is hard and the patient can gradually resume normal activities. With kyphoplasty, a cavity within the bone is created with a balloon, and bone cement is injected under lower pressure into the balloon. This space-filling procedure can restore height to a collapsed section of the vertebral column. Recovery time is generally very short with both procedures.

In some patients, surgery is required to relieve pain and to restore the support and structural integrity required for normal spine function.

Your spine center doctor will conduct a thorough evaluation and discuss all appropriate treatment options and procedures with you. Together, you will determine the approach that is best for you.