The main symptom you’ll notice with a spinal compression fracture is back pain. It may start gradually and get worse over time or come on suddenly and sharply. But regardless of how it happens, it’s important to let your doctor know about it, especially if you’re a woman who is near or over age 50.
Most compression fractures -- tiny cracks in the bones of your spine, or vertebra -- in women at this age happen because of osteoporosis, a condition defined by bones that are weak and brittle. Treating osteoporosis can help lower your risk for more fractures.
Along with back pain, spinal compression fractures also can cause:
- Pain that gets worse when you stand or walk but with some relief when you lie down
- Trouble bending or twisting your body
- Loss of height
- A curved, stooped shape to your spine
The pain typically happens 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 Fractures
For many people, a spinal compression fracture will hurt less as the bone heals. That can take up to 2 or 3 months. Other people will still have pain after the fracture has healed.
Some people feel almost no symptoms from spinal compression fractures. The cracks may happen so gradually that the pain is relatively mild or unnoticeable. For others, the pain may turn into a chronic backache in the injured area.
Signs of Multiple Spinal Compression Fractures
When you have multiple spinal compression fractures, your spine will change a lot. Part of your vertebrae may collapse because the cracks mean it can’t support the weight of your spine. That can affect how your body works. Symptoms include:
- Height loss. With each fracture of a spinal bone, the spine gets a little bit shorter. Eventually, after several vertebrae have collapsed, you will look noticeably shorter.
- Kyphosis (curved back): When vertebrae collapse, they form a wedge shape, which makes the spine bend forward. Eventually, you’ll have neck and back pain as your body tries to adapt.
- Stomach problems: A shorter spine can compress your stomach, causing digestive problems like constipation, a weak appetite, and weight loss.
- Hip pain: The shorter spine brings your rib cage closer to your hip bones. If those bones are rubbing against each other, it can hurt.
- Breathing problems: If the spine is severely compressed, your lungs may not work properly and you can have trouble breathing.
Symptoms are different for everyone, so let your doctor know if you’re feeling back pain or other problems. They can help you find out what’s causing it.
Diagnosing Spinal Compression Fractures
Symptoms are different for everyone, so let your doctor know if you’re feeling back pain or other problems. They may ask questions like:
- How long have you had this back pain?
- What caused it?
- What were you doing when it started?
- Is the pain getting worse or better?
Your doctor may also prescribe tests including:
- A spinal X-ray to determine whether a vertebra has collapsed
- A CT scan to provide detail of the fractured bone and the nerves around it
- An MRI scan to show greater detail of nerves and nearby disks
A spinal compression fracture may be seen on a bone density exam (DEXA) if an additional test called a vertebral fracture assessment (VFA) is done at the same time.