Compression fractures of the back : Symptoms & Signs, Diagnosis & Tests

Symptoms & Signs

Compression fractures may cause no symptoms and only be discovered when x-rays of the spine are done for other reasons. Over time, the following symptoms may occur:

  • Back pain with chronic or gradual onset
  • Loss of height, as much as 6 inches over time
  • Stooped over posture or kyphosis, also called a “dowager’s hump”

Compression fractures may also occur suddenly, causing severe back pain that is:

  • Most commonly felt in mid to lower part of the spine, but may also be felt on the sides or in the front.
  • Described as “knifelike” and usually disabling, often taking weeks to months to go away

Pressure on the spinal cord from kyphosis may rarely produce symptoms of:

  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Weakness
  • Difficulty walking
  • Loss of control of the bowel or bladder

Diagnosis & Tests

  • Physical examination may show hunchback (kyphosis). There is also tenderness over the injured vertebrae.
  • A spine x-ray shows at least one compressed vertebra that is shorter than the other vertebrae.

Other tests that may be done:

  • A bone density test to evaluate for osteoporosis
  • A CT or MRI scan if there is concern that the fracture was caused by a tumor, or if the fracture was caused by high-energy trauma (such as a fall from a height or car accident)

Review Date : 11/30/2009
Reviewed By : David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc., and C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Dept of Orthopaedic Surgery.

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