Spine Fracture, Causes and Symptoms

Any fracture that affects the spinal column or any of the bones within that area of the skeletal system is a spine fracture, also known as a vertebral fracture. Vehicle collisions and tough impacts from dives or falls from great heights are the most common spine fracture causes, which have the potential for catastrophic injury or death. Additional injuries are also common with this type of fracture because of the amount of force it takes to injure the spine. In the most severe cases, the fracture can affect the cervical vertebrae, in which case the neck breaks. There are seven cervical vertebrae in the neck, and if any one of them is broken, the neck may no longer be able to support the head and transport oxygen to the brain without intervention.

The good news is that there are many successful treatment options for most fractures affecting the spinal cord, and with ongoing maintenance, rehabilitation is possible. The most common types of spine fractures are compression fractures affecting the lower back (also known as the lumbar spine), the mid-back (also known as the thoracic) or the area where these two sections connect (the thoracolumbar junction). Men are about four times as likely to fracture the lumbar or thoracic as women, and all senior citizens are at a greater risk of fracturing the spine because of the effects of osteoporosis.  

Anatomy of the Spine
The spine, or vertebral column, consists of 33 vertebrae: 24 articulating vertebrae, which are capable of joint movement, as well as nine fused vertebrae that connect to the sacrum and coccyx (tailbone) at the lower back and pelvic region. The spine is found in the upper section of the human torso, stretching from the neck to tailbone. A series of discs separate each vertebrate, allowing for a full range of motion and adjusting for the curvature of the spine that people develop as part of their natural posture. This part of the skeleton is extremely important, seeing as it protects the spinal canal and spinal cord, which support cells that connect to the brain.    
The vertebrae of the spine are grouped as follows:

  • 12 thoracic vertebrae (mid-back)
  • 7 cervical vertebrae (neck)
  • 5 lumbar vertebrae (lower back)
  • 5 vertebrae fused to the sacrum (part of the pelvic surface)
  • 4 vertebrae fused to the coccyx (tailbone)

Types of Spine Fracture
There are many different types of spine fractures, but the most common are compression fractures of the mid or lower spine (i.e. the thoracic or lumbar spine). These may be categorized based on a number of factors, such as the severity of the injury, whether the spinal cord was involved and the pattern of the fracture. Extension, flexion and rotation fractures are most common in the spine.  

  • Extension Fractures: This type of fracture is typified by a pulling apart, or distraction, of the vertebrae. Head-on collisions are a common cause, since the pelvis is kept in place by a seatbelt as the upper body is flung forward with great force.  
  • Flexion Fractures: There are two types of flexion fractures that may occur in the spine, which are both often caused by falls from great heights. If it is a compression fracture, the break will be stable, with the front vertebrae breaking and decreasing the height of the spine, as the back vertebrae are unaffected. If it is an axial burst fracture, both sides of the vertebrae are broken and reduced in height. 
  • Rotation Fractures: There are two types of rotation fractures, as well. There are transverse process fractures, which are very rare and stem from extreme rotation or sideways bending. Fracture dislocations, on the other hand, are more common and more unstable. The latter type of rotation fracture often involves displacement of vertebrae and damage to bones or soft tissue.  

Causes of Spine Fracture
These are the most common spine fracture causes involving the lumbar and thoracic spine:

  • Accidents during high-impact sports
  • Conditions that result in frail bones, such as osteoporosis and tumors 
  • Falls from great heights (such as diving into shallow water)
  • Vehicle crashes
  • Violent injuries (i.e. gunshot wounds and other traumas)\

While these common spine fractures don’t always result from traumas, cervical fractures always require a great deal of force. Falls and vehicle collisions are the most common cervical spine fracture causes, as well as aggressive contact sports including football, hockey, soccer, rugby and wrestling. Some other sports like diving, equestrianism, motor racing, mountain biking, power lifting, skiing, snowboarding and surfing also occasionally lead to a cervical fracture (broken neck).    

Symptoms of Spine Fracture
There are many possible spine fracture symptoms. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to seek medical assistance right away to reduce the risk of additional fractures and other complications. Older women experiencing severe back pain, or anyone experiencing severe and sudden back pain, are likely the victims of a spine fracture. Remember, not all spine fractures are caused by serious trauma. Also, not all fractures hurt immediately. Some come on slowly over time.

These are the most common spine fracture symptoms:

  • Sudden and severe back pain
  • Back pain that increases when walking or standing, and decreases when lying down
  • Difficulty twisting and bending
  • Reduced height
  • Spine is more curved than normal (or other spinal deformities)
  • Ongoing pain during everyday activities such as:
    • Bending to reach something on the floor
    • Lifting groceries, mattress corners or suitcases 
    • Minor slips and missteps

The most serious type of spine fracture is one involving multiple breaks, which can dramatically alter the spinal column and damage internal organs. Again, not everyone will experience the same symptoms, so it’s important to seek treatment from a medical expert immediately. These are some of the common multiple spine fracture symptoms:

  • Loss in height caused be several vertebral collapses
  • Curved back (also known as kyphosis)
  • Stomach problems such as a bulging stomach and/or various digestive issues
  • Hip pain caused by the ribcage being closer to the hips
  • Difficulty breathing caused by severe vertebral compression

The multidisciplinary team of orthopaedic experts at North Shore-LIJ Orthopaedic Institute's Trauma Services in New York treats Spine Fractures as well as a broad range of conditions that affect the bones within the body.

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