Spinal fractures are most often the result of a car accident, fall from height, or sports. The severity can vary greatly from mild discomfort to debilitating damage. Commonly, patients with spinal fractures can experience pain, difficulty walking, or a loss of the ability to move the arms and legs.
First, an explanation of what the spine is. Your spine is made up of 33 bones (vertebrae). This is what allows you to stand up straight, bend, slouch, etc. Between each vertebra there are intervertebral discs that act as soft cushions between the bones as well as ligaments that connect the bones to each other.
There is an empty cavity running the length of the vertebrae that houses the spinal cord. The spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body, sending and receiving messages that tell us to do things like bend our index finger and put one foot in front of the other when walking. The spinal cord is very important and very fragile so the vertebrae act as its protectors.
Types of Spinal Fractures
There are three categories a spine injury can fall into: fractures, dislocations, and fracture-dislocations.
Fractures occur when more pressure is placed on a bone than it can handle. Usually, this takes the form of a compressed vertebra. This happens as a result of a sudden, intense downward force that collapses the vertebra. Those with osteoporosis, tumors, or other conditions that cause a weakening of bone are more prone to suffering compression fractures.
Dislocation is defined as the stretching or tearing of the ligaments or discs connecting two vertebrae, causing the spine to come out of alignment. A dislocated vertebra can be the root of instability and spinal cord compression.
Fracture-dislocations occur when both the bone and ligament/disc are broken. These injuries typically cause instability for the spinal cord and are generally quite serious is nature.
Diagnosis and Treatment
To diagnose a spinal injury, the doctor will first immobilize your neck or back as appropriate to prevent further injury while you are examined. After a physical exam, a spine specialist will use different testing methods as they see fit to determine the type and severity of the injury. Doctors use x-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to get a clearer picture of the condition of the spine.
Braces and orthotics are commonly used to treat spinal injuries. Even when bracing alone is not enough to heal the fracture, braces immobilize your spine during healing, sustain spinal alignment, and ease pain by restricting movement.
Spinal instrumentation and fusion are surgical procedures that stabilize the spine. Instrumentation involves implanting a metal device to permanently provide stability to the spine. Bone can eventually grow around the implant, furthering its strength. Fusion is a process that uses a bone graft to cause two or more vertebrae to bond together forming one solid piece of bone.
Vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty are also surgical procedures but unlike the surgeries listed above, these involve rebuilding the existing, damaged bone. They are commonly used to treat compression fractures. In vertebroplasty, the injured vertebra is filled with bone cement. Kyphoplasty is a little different in that a balloon is first inserted into the compressed bone to expand it back to its natural shape before bone cement is inserted.
Due to the delicacy of the spinal cord and the importance of the spine to how we sit, stand, and walk, a spinal fracture is not the same as a broken arm or leg. If you think you may have a spinal fracture, you should see a spinal specialist as soon as possible. Orthopaedic Associates of St. Augustine has been providing spine care and treatment for years and is proud to boast the best spinal center in the area.
If you’d like to meet with one of our spinal specialists, please give us a call at 904-825-0540 or request an appointment online.