Vertebral Compression Fractures (VCF)

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Condition: Vertebral compression fractures (VCFs) are fractures in the spine that occur because of force often associated with trauma. This injury can lead to back pain and cause a person to lose height. They are also known as spinal compression fractures.

Background:  Many VCFs are due to underlying osteoporosis and happen to older people. For people with moderate osteoporosis, even tripping or trying to lift an object can result in a fracture. For those with advanced osteoporosis, even smaller motions such as coughing can fracture the spine. VCFs can also be caused by traumatic injuries such as falls.

Risk Factors: Post-menopausal women with osteoporosis are at greatest risk. Examples of other groups at risk include people with cancer and smokers.

History and Symptoms: The primary symptom is back pain when standing, walking or bending, although some people do not experience pain. Pain can come on quickly, or progress gradually and be minor or severe. A telltale sign of VCF is a curved or “hunchback” spine and loss of height.

Physical Exam: During the exam, the physician will check for spine pain or abnormality as well as loss of sensation, weakness and abnormal reflexes, which could indicate a more severe VCF.

Diagnostic Process: Imaging tests such as X-rays, CT or MRI are typically ordered to help detect a VCF and better understand any abnormalities in the spine.

Rehab Management: It is recommended for a VCF the patient be seen by a physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) physician for treatment due to their expertise in spine injuries. They may prescribe braces to control pain, and restore posture.  In most cases, VCFs can heal on their own. Pain medications are often used to control symptoms during healing. Underlying osteoporosis may require medication to control bone loss. Physical therapy may also be prescribed to improve function. In more severe cases, spine procedures or surgery may be considered.

Other Resources for Patients and Families: VCFs shift a person’s center of gravity, which means they are more likely to fall. The CDC’s Stopping Elderly Deaths and Injuries (STEADI) program offers fall-prevention resources. NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases ~ National Resource Center also has resources that can help.



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