It is important to identify the symptoms of spinal compression fractures and notify your doctor right away. Sudden, severe back pain, especially in older women, may signal a spinal compression fracture or another serious condition.
Anyone with significant back pain -- especially a woman who is near or over age 50 -- should see a doctor. Most compression fractures in women over 50 are due to osteoporosis and treatment can help reduce the chance of further compression fractures.
A bone density scan can detect thinning bones at an early stage. If you already have osteoporosis, bone scans can also tell you how fast the disease is progressing.
But an abnormal bone scan can create as many questions as it answers. Who should get a bone density scan, and what do the results mean? If your bone density is below normal, what can you expect, and what should you do?
Sudden, severe back pain (though many times the symptoms can come on gradually and worsen over time)
Worsening of pain when standing or walking
Some pain relief when lying down
Difficulty and pain when bending or twisting
Loss of height
Deformity of the spine - the curved, "hunchback" shape
The pain typically occurs with a slight back strain during an everyday activity, like:
Lifting a bag of groceries
Bending to the floor to pick something up
Slipping on a rug or making a misstep
Lifting a suitcase out of the trunk of a car
Lifting the corner of a mattress when changing bed linens
Different Signs of Spinal Compression Fracture Pain
The pain experience of a spinal compression fracture can vary. For many people, the pain will subside while the bone is healing. That can take up to two or three months. Other people will continue feeling pain, even if the fracture has healed.
Not everyone feels a clear-cut spinal pain when a fracture occurs.
In some cases, there is virtually no pain involved with spinal compression fractures. The fractures may occur so gradually that the pain is relatively mild or unnoticeable. For some people, the pain may evolve into a chronic back ache in the injured area. For others, the gradual curving of the spine is the first indication that multiple fractures have occurred.
Signs of Multiple Spinal Compression Fractures
When multiple spinal compression fractures have occurred, there is considerable change in the spine. This can affect the internal organs and body functions:
Height loss: With each fracture of a spinal bone, the spine loses some of its height. Eventually, after several collapsed vertebrae, the person's shorter stature will be noticeable.
Kyphosis (curved back): These fractures often create wedge-shaped vertebral bones, which makes the spine bend forward. Eventually, neck and back pain may develop as your body tries to adapt.
Stomach complaints: A shorter spine can compress the stomach, causing a bulging stomach and digestive problems like constipation, less appetite, and weight loss.
Hip pain: The shorter spine brings the rib cage closer to the hip bones. If rib and hip bones are rubbing against each other, there will be discomfort and pain.
Breathing problems: If the spine becomes severely compressed, lungs may not function properly and breathing can be seriously affected.
The symptoms of spinal compression fractures are obviously different for every person.
SOURCE: Black DM, Thompson DE, Bauer DC, Ensrud K, Musliner T, Hochberg MC, et al. Fracture risk reduction with alendronate in women with osteoporosis: the Fracture Intervention Trial. FIT Research Group. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2000; 85:4118-24. Michael Schaufele, MD, physiatrist and professor of orthopaedics, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta.