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 are small breaks or cracks in the vertebrae (the bones that make up your spinal column). The breaks happen in the vertebral body, which is the thick, rounded part on the front of each vertebra. Fractures in the bone cause the spine to weaken and collapse. Over time, these fractures affect posture. The spine curves forward and the person looks “hunched over” (kyphosis).
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.
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.
Compression fracture symptoms range from mild to severe. Some people may not have symptoms. Their provider may discover the fracture when they do an X-ray for another condition. But many people are unable to stand or walk without pain. Symptoms of a fractured spine include:
Most compression fractures result from osteoporosis. Bones naturally weaken with age. The vertebrae in the spine become flatter and narrower. Weakened bones are more likely to fracture.
If you have moderate osteoporosis, you might get a compression fracture from a fall or another type of accident. People who have severe osteoporosis can fracture a bone during daily activities. These can include getting out of a car, sneezing, coughing or twisting suddenly.
In younger people who don’t have osteoporosis, compression fractures usually result from trauma (such as a car accident) or cancer. Cancerous tumors can spread to the spine, weaken the vertebrae and cause the bones to break.
Women over 50 have a higher risk of compression fractures due to osteoporosis. With age, the risk increases in people of all genders. People who have had a compression fracture in the past are more likely to have another one.
To diagnose a compression fracture, your provider will examine you and ask about your symptoms. During the exam, your provider:
Your provider will also order imaging studies to see pictures of the bones, muscles and soft tissues in your back. These imaging studies include:
Compression fracture treatment focuses on relieving pain, stabilizing the bones in the spine and preventing another fracture. Depending on the severity of the fracture and your overall health, treatment may include:
You may not always be able to prevent compression fractures. To reduce your risk of a compression fracture from osteoporosis, you should:
The outlook varies depending on age, the type and severity of the fracture and overall health. Many compression fractures heal after a few months of rest, limited movement and medications.
If you have osteoporosis, you have a higher chance of another compression fracture. You’re also more likely to break other bones, such as a hip.
If you have sudden back pain that doesn’t get better after a day or two, see your provider. It’s important to get an evaluation for back pain so your provider can determine the cause and plan treatment. Call your provider right away if you’re over 65 or you have osteoporosis or a history of cancer.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Compression fractures are very common and usually result from osteoporosis. Your risk of this type of fracture increases with age. To lower your risk of compression fractures, see your provider regularly, eat a healthy diet and get plenty of vitamin D and calcium. If you’re over 50, talk to your provider about getting a bone density test and taking medications to slow bone loss. See your provider if you have sudden back pain. When recovering from a compression fracture, follow your provider’s instructions so you can heal properly.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/02/2021.
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