Senior Care: What to do about compression fractures

What is a compression fracture and why is it so prevalent in the elderly?

compression fracture is a collapse of vertebrae in the spine. Vertebrae can break due to traumatic force such as an auto accident or fall, or it can happen due to bone disease or infection. Finally, vertebrae break due to osteoporosis, a loss of bone density. Since our focus is on seniors, we will target how the aging body becomes susceptible to compression fractures.

First: a little anatomy. The spinal cord is a superhighway of sensory and motor nerves. It is surrounded by vertebrae protected by discs. The discs work as a shock absorber between each vertebra. Discs start out soft and elastic and like so many other parts of the body, become more rigid and vulnerable to injury as we age.

Vertebrae become brittle with osteoporosis. They press against the discs upon collapsing. What distinguishes compression fractures from other spinal fractures is that front of the vertebrae crushes but the back of the vertebrae stays intact. This process produces that hunched over look in the elderly.

The symptoms of compression fractures may or may not include back pain. That is because the back of the vertebrae remains intact and can still do its job in protecting the spinal cord. In some cases, compression fractures caused by osteoporosis may not have any symptoms and are only discovered when X-rays of the spine are done for other reasons. In other cases, compression fractures present back pain that increases over time, usually when walking rather than while at rest. Nerve pain such as numbness, tingling and difficulty walking signal a more serious condition that the spinal cord is affected.

Compression fractures will heal, usually in about eight to 12 weeks. Having one compression fracture puts you at risk for having more, so it is important to do what you can to prevent it from happening again. The best treatment is prevention of osteoporosis. Exercise, calcium and medications are effective in fighting osteoporosis.

Keeping a straight posture may help keep your spine aligned and less prone to curvature. Yoga and tai chi can strengthen muscle groups to support the spine. There is a list of yoga and tai chi classes on the Health Calendar this section of the newspaper. Take a look at a sample video of instruction at to give you an idea of what tai chi entails. Just a note, A Brand New Day does not endorse or support this website.

If you suspect a compression fracture, see your doctor and have a physical exam and X-rays for an effective treatment plan.

The doctor may order physical therapy to help straighten the spine. The physical therapist can direct exercises to help restore normal joint and muscle function and further reduce risk of a another compression fracture. This option may prevent surgery. Doctors usually exhaust all options before surgery to correct the fracture.

In some cases, an interventional radiologist can change the height of the vertebra by a procedure called vetebroplasty by injecting cement into the vertebrae. This stabilizes the fracture and will prevent another collapse. If the fracture is not severe, another treatment option may be bracing of the spine. Immobilization of the spine with bracing may help with healing.

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