Spine fractures caused by trauma–a sudden blow or injury to the vertebrae–can occur anywhere on the spine, including:
- Bones in the neck (cervical spine)
- Bones in the upper back (thoracic spine)
- The lower back (lumbar spine)
- The section of connected bone at the very bottom of the spinal column (sacrum)
Car accidents, falls and sports injuries are examples of trauma that can cause spine fractures.
The first symptom of a broken bone is usually pain unless the spinal cord also has been injured, which can produce weakness, paralysis and/or lack of sensation. Depending on the location of the fracture, the damaged structures can injure the spinal cord or spinal nerves nerves that lead to pain in the arms or legs, or affect the bowel, bladder or sexual organs.
Treatment of spinal fractures is aimed at realigning the broken pieces and keeping them in alignment until the bone has healed. Healthy broken bones will naturally form more bone tissue around the broken edges to “knit” the broken edges. Specific treatment of traumatic spine fractures depends on the location of the fracture, its severity and how it impacts nearby tissue and nerves.
Some fractures heal well with external bracing. Cervical fractures can sometimes be treated with a halo vest (a ring attached to the skull and attached to a vest on the chest). Other fractures may require surgical stabilization, with implanted screws, hooks and connecting rods, and fusing that portion of the same spine (placing bone graft to help the bones grow together).
There are some fractures which my need to be observed to determine whether bone will heal on their own or if surgery will be needed. Surgery is recommended for many patients who suffer neurologic injury at the time of their fracture to remove any bone or disc material that is still compressing the neural structures, and to stabilize that part of the spine to minimize additional trauma to that region.