‘Broken back’ could mean a lot of things, but kyphoplasty may be the answer to the chronic pain

Stock image, St. George News

FEATURE — If you have ever heard the phrase “broken back” and wondered what exactly is meant by that terminology, you are probably not alone.

“Broken back” is a general term and can often mean many things depending on the context, just as phrases like “bad heart,” “mental illness” or “bad knee” can mean many things.

However, one of the ways “broken back” is regularly used is to refer to a vertebral body compression fracture. This is the most common fracture of the spine and involves the portion of the spine known as the vertebral body – the area where bones are stacked on top of each other.

In a compression fracture, this portion of the bone can get “sandwiched” or compressed down. 

Who is at risk?

While a compression fracture can occur in the setting of severe trauma or cancer, the most common cause of vertebral compression fractures is osteoporosis or osteopenia, a condition that thins and reduces the strength of the bone. This weakening of the bones makes them more prone to fracture and injury.

Osteoporosis is often caused by hormone changes and decreased activity associated with aging. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 5.1% of men over age 65 and 24.5% of women over age 65 have osteoporosis, which is the most severe form of this bone thinning or weakening. 

Is there a treatment?

In the past, compression fractures were treated with rest, braces, pain medicine and time. However, compression fractures can often result in severe, constant and debilitating pain, which can lead to bed rest and decreased activity despite conservative management. Unfortunately, bed rest and decreased activity can make individuals more prone to muscle and bone wasting, blood clots and infections, including pneumonia, all of which can lead to hospitalization.

Fortunately, there is a minimally invasive procedure known as a kyphoplasty that can improve both pain and function. During a kyphoplasty, a large needle is placed under X-ray guidance into the area of the compressed fracture. Once in this area, a small balloon is used to lift the fracture. A small amount of bone cement is then injected and used to stabilize the fracture.

In all, the procedure generally takes about 30-60 minutes. Patients are generally able to leave the same day after a period of close observation. This procedure has been shown to significantly reduce pain and improve function and can even help save a life.

A study published by the American Society of Neuroradiology in December 2019 showed that in addition to reducing pain, a kyphoplasty may significantly improve life expectancy. 

Can you prevent a vertebral body compressions fracture?

If you have had a previous hip, wrist or compression fracture, you may be at an increased risk of having osteoporosis. Perhaps the best way to minimize the risk of having a fracture is to talk to your primary care physician to determine whether you are at risk of having osteoporosis. If you have thinning bones, there are treatment options.

The CDC gives some basic recommendations regarding how to strengthen bones, such as taking medications, eating a healthy diet that includes adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D, limiting alcohol, abstaining from smoking and performing weight-bearing exercises on a regular basis. 

If you or a loved one has a compression fracture or are concerned that you may be at risk, contact your primary care physician or a specialty physician. 

Written by DR. RODNEY SMITH, Southwest Spine & Pain.

This article was first published in St. George Health and Wellness magazine.

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Twitter: @STGnews

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