A vertebral body fracture is a fracture of a vertebra of the spine. Vertebral body fractures occur either as the consequence of accidents or at an advanced age as a result of [osteoporosis]. It is important to differentiate between stable vertebral body fractures and unstable vertebral body fractures.
The spine consists of 33 to 34 vertebrae. A vertebra consists of the vertebral body and the spinous processes. The vertebral body and the spinous processes form a continuous channel in which the spinal cord passes. There are intervertebral discs between the vertebrae. The main cause of vertebral body fractures is osteoporosis. Even with mild force or purely due to gravity, fractures can occur on the weakened vertebral body. On the other hand, extensive force is required for vertebral fractures to occur in a healthy bone; for example, during a traffic accident or a sporting accident. Such vertebral fractures are called traumatic vertebral fractures. In layman’s terms, vertebral fractures that do not present any risk for the spinal cord are deemed to be stable vertebral fractures. Fractures which injure the spinal cord or threaten to injure it are deemed to be unstable vertebral fractures.
The symptoms of a vertebral fracture depend on the type and location of the fracture. Oesteoporotic vertebral body fractures often cause malformation of the spine and to a reduction in body size. In the case of traumatic fractures of the spinal column, the pain is situated in the area of the fracture and the movement of the spine is limited. Signs of paralysis, numbness or disorders of the bladder or bowel movements are signs of injury to the spinal cord.
The diagnosis of a vertebral fracture is made on the basis of the patient’s medical history (osteoporosis or accident) and with radiological examinations. Computed tomography is carried out to rule out an unstable vertebral fracture or injury to the spinal cord.
Vertebral body fractures can be conservatively or surgically treated. The choice of treatment option depends primarily on whether the fracture is stable or unstable. A stable vertebral fracture can be treated conservatively. This includes taking pressure off it, pain reduction and where necessary stabilisation of the spine with a collar or a support corset.
There are different surgical procedures available for the surgical treatment. Find out more about this in the Surgery for vertebral body fractures section.