What are vertebral compression fractures?

Osteoporosis is a common bone disease marked by the increasing loss of bone density (strength). Low bone mass and structural deterioration of bony tissue can lead to fractures (breaks). Especially common are fractures of the hip, spine, and wrist, although any bones can be affected. These fractures can lead to loss of height, stooped posture, humpback (kyphosis), and severe, debilitating pain.Diagram of a vertebrae

Vertebral compression fractures usually happen suddenly. Such fractures are painful, and it can take several months for the pain to improve. In severe osteoporosis, the vertebrae become so weak that they collapse upon themselves, leading to spinal deformity.

Statistics

Though osteoporosis occurs in both men and women, women are 4 times more likely to develop the disease than men. After age 50, 1 in 2 white women and 1 in 4 white men will have an osteoporosis-related fracture in their lifetimes. Ten percent of African-American women over age 50 have osteoporosis. An additional 30% have low bone density that puts them at risk of developing osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is responsible for more than 1.5 million fractures each year.

What are the risk factors for vertebral compression fractures?

Diagram of a vertebrae in the spine

Controllable risk factors include:

  • Low-calcium diet
  • Smoking
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Chronic (long-term) dieting
  • Estrogen deficiency
  • Sedentary (inactive) lifestyle

Uncontrollable risk factors include:

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What are the symptoms of vertebral compression fractures?

  • Vertebral fractures may appear as low back pain, loss of height, or spinal deformities such as kyphosis. Symptoms can be damaging to a patient’s quality of life.
  • As vertebral bones collapse, the loss of vertebral height actually causes the patient to lose height.
  • Physical defects (such as a "humpback" or kyphosis) often develop, which causes severe pain, tingling, numbness, and weakness.
  • As the structure changes, the upper body height can be lost, allowing the ribs to drop towards the hips. This can cause breathing difficulty and compression (squeezing) of internal organs, which can make the abdomen protrude (stick out).