5 Common Types of Spinal Fractures

Spinal Fractures Made Easy: 3 Common Causes

A spinal fracture occurs when a vertebra—the boney component of your spine—breaks. We often think of broken bones as resulting from injuries. But, many different causes can lead to spinal fractures. The most common of these factors includes:

Neck & Back Injuries

Of course, trauma often plays a key role in spinal fractures. Car accidents, acts of violence (like gunshot wounds), falls, and sports collisions… Each of these mishaps can cause a vertebra to shatter upon impact.

Acquired Disorders

An “acquired” disorder refers to a disease that you developed after your birth. In other words, the disease was not hardwired into your genes. For instance, as we age, a number of bone disorders can weaken the spine, upping our rate of spinal fractures. Conditions to watch out for include:

  • Osteoporosis: Also known as low bone density or brittle bones, osteoporosis occurs when our bones become weak from a gradual thinning out of bone tissue. Affecting women 4x as often as men, this disorder often arises during menopause as our estrogen levels begin to drop. Like estrogen, calcium and vitamin D are also essential for guarding your bones against bone loss. Deficiencies in either of these substances can lead to osteoporosis, aka “porous” bones that fracture easily.
  • Spinal Tumors: Spinal tumors are often a form of bone cancer. (However, they can also affect non-boney areas of the spine, like the spinal cord or nerves.) As a spinal tumor grows in size, it applies pressure to our vertebrae. If this force becomes too extreme, then our bones may begin to develop tiny cracks or split open.
  • Spinal Infections: We normally think of bacterial infections as affecting the throat or sinuses. But, bacterial infections can also attack the spine. In fact, if your infection becomes severe enough, it can cause your spinal discs to decay and your vertebrae to weaken or fracture.

Genetic Disorders

Lastly, you can be born with certain genes that alter your bone strength. For example, Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) results from an error in a gene that codes for collagen production. Because collagen provides the framework for healthy bones, individuals with OI suffer from frequent fractures.

Stable Fractures vs. Unstable Fractures

There are many different ways to classify a broken bone. But, when it comes to the spine—and above all else—your doctor will want to know if your fracture is stable or unstable.

Although far from being ideal, a stable fracture generally means that you have much less to worry about. True, stable fractures can be just as painful as unstable fractures. But, they do not compromise the integrity of your spine. Unstable fractures, on the other hand, can cause serious problems.

An “unstable” fracture means that the breakage makes it difficult for your spine to support the weight of your torso. When this happens, it puts you at a high risk of suffering a spinal cord injuryeven days after the fracture has occurred! Spinal cord injuries can leave lasting neurological damage, like paralysis or a loss of sensation in the limbs.

But, that’s not all. Unstable fractures can also cause progressive deformities, as your spine begins to slump under the weight of your torso. You may develop scoliosis (a sideways S-bend in the spine); kyphosis (a hump in the upper back); or lordosis (aka swayback).

If you think you have fractured a vertebra, then don’t delay when it comes to seeking treatment. Spinal fractures require careful treatment from a board-certified orthopedic surgeon who can diagnose your condition and provide the best treatments. For award-winning spine care that you can trust, contact our spine specialists at NYC Spine Surgery in Morristown, NJ & Manhattan, NY.

doctor examines x-ray of patient's lumbar spine with fracture

The 5 Basic Types of Spinal Fractures

Radiologists and orthopedists have identified dozens of different types of fractures that can affect the spine. But, five of the most common types include:

Compression Fractures

A compression fracture occurs when a squeezing force causes a bone to cave in. This makes it sound like trauma must be involved. But, it’s not usually. In fact, your vertebrae are always under a certain amount of compression. This is because your vertebrae stack up on one another to form your vertebral column, aka, the spine.

For example, doctors label your 12 thoracic vertebrae from T1 – T12 in the top-to-bottom order that they stack up. So, T6 always receives a tiny bit of compression from its neighbors, T5 and T7.

If your vertebrae happen to be weak from a condition such as osteoporosis, even a mild force like a sneeze can cause a vertebra to cave in. Specifically, compression fractures often cause vertebrae to crumble on the front (or anterior) side of the vertebral body. This creates a wedge-shaped vertebra that can lead to spinal deformities, like kyphosis.

Burst Fractures

Burst fractures are very similar to spinal compression fractures. However, compression fractures cause only the front side of a vertebra to cave in. In contrast, burst fractures cause the vertebra to shatter on all four sides.

This can be especially dangerous because those tiny shards of bone can work their way into your spinal canal, which houses your spinal cord. If these fragments scratch or sever your spinal cord, then more serious symptoms, like a spinal cord injury (SCI), can arise. An SCI usually causes symptoms, such as paralysis or nerve damage, that are impossible to reverse.

Fracture-Dislocation

When the force that produces the fracture is strong enough, it can completely dislodge a vertebra from the vertebral column. A fracture-dislocation results in forward or backward vertebral movement, known as spondylolisthesis, aka a slipped vertebra.

Furthermore, doctors refer to this type of slipped vertebra as traumatic spondylolisthesis, because an injury led to the damage. Unfortunately, this form of fracture is unstable, meaning that the patient will need medical advice and attention ASAP.

Flexion-Distraction Fracture (FDF)

A Flexion-Distraction Fracture (FDF) goes by many different names: Chance Fracture. Extension Pattern Fracture. Seatbelt Trauma… etc. But, the mechanism that causes the fracture is the same.

When a car slams to an abrupt stop–as in a vehicular accident–its occupants can be thrown forward. (In fact, when this causes soft tissue injury to the neck, doctors refer to this condition as whiplash.) Luckily, we have seatbelts that prevent our bodies from colliding with the windshield (or the seat, as it may be) in front of us. However, seatbelts can still cause injuries, such as FDF.

The forward force of the car causes your spine to flex forward (hence the flexion part of flexion-distraction fracture). Distraction means that the bones bulged outward, until at which point, they broke. Compounded with the pressure of the seatbelt, FDF injuries can occur easily and somewhat frequently.

Transverse Process Fractures (TPF)

Your spinous processes are the bony tips that jut out from the back side of your vertebrae. You have 3 of these processes. One is located smack dab in the middle of the posterior side of your vertebrae. And, the other two flank the right and left (or transverse) sides of the posterior vertebra.

In addition, these tips are attached to muscles and ligaments, such as the psoas muscle, that enable your spine to move. When confronted with an extreme force, like a car accident or sports collision, your muscles may contract in preparation for the blow. In layman’s terms, this is known as “bracing yourself for the fall.” As your muscles contract, they can twist the spine out of alignment, resulting in a TFP. During a TFP, those bony tips can snap right off your spine, causing excruciating pain.

If you have suffered from any of these injuries, then you should seek the advice of a skilled professional. A board-certified spine surgeon, such as Dr. Daveed Frazier, can diagnose your fracture type and help you explore minimally invasive treatments. For expert advice that you can trust, contact our team at New York City Spine. Our spine team is here to help you achieve lasting relief from a variety of spine issues, such as spinal fractures.

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