What is the Treatment for a Fractured Spine

Around 80 percent of adults are used to dealing with occasional or frequent back pain. Though a pulled muscle or chronic low back pain are uncomfortable, they are typically not serious and can be treated at home. However, a spinal fracture is a much more serious injury that should be diagnosed and treated by a medical professional.

Spinal Fracture Fundamentals

The spine is comprised of 33 vertebrae, each of which has a body, an arch, and several processes that attach to ligaments and muscles. One of the most common types of breaks in the spine is a vertical compression fracture, which occurs when too much force is applied and the body of a vertebra collapses. This causes instability in the spine and could also create bone fragments that go into the spinal canal. Depending on how the injury is caused, two or more bones might also dislocate when the ligaments that connect them are torn. In some cases, bones in the spine could be both compressed and dislocated, creating severe instability.

The symptoms of a fractured spine vary widely and may include:

  • Pain in the back and/or neck
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Muscle spasms
  • Weakness in the spine
  • Loss of movement in the arms or legs

Because most spinal fractures are associated with a high-impact incident, it’s always a good idea to see a doctor if you experience back pain after an accident. This type of injury can be diagnosed with an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI.

Causes of a Fractured Spine

A spinal fracture is typically an acute injury that is most often caused by a high-impact collision, for example, a car accident or falling from a ladder or roof. For athletes, spinal fractures may occur when there is a collision between two players or when a gymnast falls from a significant height. Another potential cause of a fractured spine is osteoporosis. When the bones are weakened, they can break from everyday activities such as shoveling or lifting a heavy object. In some cases, spinal fractures can also be caused by pressure from tumors in the back.  

Treatment Options for a Fractured Spine

If you are diagnosed with a fractured spine, your doctor may recommend a course of treatment that aligns with the severity of the injury, the location of the fracture, and any other injuries you might have as a result of the impact that caused the fracture.

In some cases, a combination of stabilizing braces and orthotics for eight to 12 weeks is sufficient to allow the spine to heal on its own. This approach is intended to immobilize the spine so that the bones can heal, reduce pain associated with movement of the spine, and maintain proper alignment so the bones can heal correctly.

If the injury is very unstable, surgery may be required. The two most common types of surgery are fusion and vertebroplasty. Spinal fusion uses hardware to attach a bone graft to two vertebra so they essentially become one bone. Vertebroplasty is used to treat compression fractures by filling the space with bone cement.

Spinal Surgery Recovery Timeline

Because spinal fusion requires bones to grow and connect to each other, the recovery process could take several months. Recovery from vertebroplasty is much faster, with many people resuming normal activity after just one or two days. Of course, every patient is different, so it’s important to discuss your recovery timeline with your doctor so you know when it’s safe to perform certain activities.   

Spinal Fracture Surgery Preparation

Vertebroplasty recovery requires minimal preparation because the recovery period is typically short. You will need to have somebody drive you to and from the hospital for the outpatient procedure, and you should be prepared to rest for a couple days while you heal. Use ice packs on the surgical site to help dull the pain and reduce inflammation.

Recovery from spinal fusion takes longer and requires more preparation. You will probably have to be in the hospital for several days, so make arrangements accordingly. Your doctor will also likely prescribe pain medication, so fill your prescriptions before the procedure so you don’t have to fill them after surgery. Mobility after spinal fusion can be limited, which is why it’s a good idea to prepare your home for single-floor living and arrange for convenient meals. A cold therapy system may allow you to safely apply therapeutic cold to help reduce the pain and swelling caused by the surgery.

A fractured spine is a serious injury that should not be left untreated. If you’re concerned that your back pain might be more than just a pulled muscle, get a diagnosis from a medical professional and get the appropriate treatment.