The medical term “fracture” refers to the partial or complete breakage of a bone, anywhere in the body. When it occurs in one of the vertebrae, it is called a spinal fracture. If you want to know more about the recovery process after suffering an injury of this type, we invite you to continue reading this article.
Let’s take the example of a woman we’ll call Betty. Betty is more than 85 years old, and because of the travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, she has not been able to see her son Bill, who lives in a different country, for over two years. When they finally were able to see each other again, what they hoped would be a happy, uneventful, quiet visit, turned into something quite different.
When Bill got to his mother’s house, he was so overjoyed at seeing her after such a long time, that he grabbed her into a big hug and she lost her balance and fell! They rushed to the hospital and Betty was diagnosed with a fractured vertebra. It may not have been the fall itself that produced the fracture, but more likely, due to her age the vertebra was already weakened by osteoporosis, and as a result, she sustained a fracture during that effusive embrace.
This story illustrates the kind of situation in which a spinal fracture can occur. This type of fracture often happens as the result of trauma or injury of a certain degree of intensity. However, the fracture can also happen when a person suffers a light injury, as in the case of Betty, or by lifting or carrying too heavy a load.
While all fractures should receive medical attention, vertebral fractures can be considered more serious than those anywhere else in the body, because they directly affect the stability of the spine and can damage the spinal cord and cause nerve damage.
Spinal fracture: What are the causes?
The story of Betty and Bill we described at the beginning makes reference to one of the most common causes of this type of fracture: osteoporosis. Over the years, this disease can weaken the bone, through loss of calcium and other minerals, making it become fragile.
But in addition to diseases of the bone such as osteoporosis, there are also other causes that can lead to a fractured vertebra, as you will see in the following list:
- Back injury resulting from a fall, a car accident, practicing a physically violent or rough sport.
- Tumors originating in the bone, or as the result of the spread of cancer from some other part of the body.
- Tumors that enter the spinal column, such as multiple myeloma, a cancer that forms in a type of white blood cell called a plasma cell.
How does a spine fracture heal?
In case you were wondering, not all spinal fractures require surgery to heal. In fact, if the spine remains stable and the patient’s pain can be managed, the specialist will treat the fracture using conservative measures such as oral pain relieving medication and bed rest.
This type of fracture is also usually treated with physical therapy to improve mobility, and strengthen the muscles around the spine. Use of an orthopedic brace to help stabilize the spine is also a treatment alternative, but the specialist should decide whether this is necessary according to the individual patient’s case, as they can actually further weaken the bone and increase the risk of more fractures.
Surgery is usually only performed when the patient continues to have severe, disabling pain that lasts longer than 2 months, and when the condition gets worse, rather than better, after other kinds of treatments.
Recovery time: every patient is different!
It’s difficult to talk about a specific recovery time when dealing with a spinal fracture, because the same treatment does not achieve the same results for every patient, and of course, surgery requires a longer recovery time than other types of treatment.
If the case does not require surgery, the healing process can take about 8 to 10 weeks for an elderly patient. For the healing to take place, it is vital that during this time the patient strictly follows the instructions of their physician: resting, wearing a brace (if that is recommended by the doctor), and taking the medications prescribed. We should note that young patients usually recover in 6 weeks, or even only a month, depending on the complexity of the injury.
If the patient does require surgery, the recovery time can be extended a couple more weeks, since it is necessary to take into account the kind of postoperative care they need, making sure that there is no post-surgical infection, and monitoring their progress to make sure the healing takes place correctly.
Regular exercise, like walking, can help prevent bone loss. In addition, we recommend having a bone density analysis performed periodically, especially in the case of post-menopausal women. At Instituto Clavel, our goal is to help you prevent this type of injury, and to treat any spinal pathology that may be affecting your quality of life.