As people age, it's not unusual for the bones of the skeleton to lose calcium and become thinner and weaker. This loss of calcium can approach dangerous levels and make the bones susceptible to fractures — a condition known as osteoporosis.
This disease, seen in both sexes, is much more common in women after menopause. A common way to diagnose osteoporosis is a bone density test, which uses X-ray to measure the thickness and strength of the bone.
Fractures due to osteoporosis can be seen in many different bones. The vertebrae are the bones that make up the spine and they are common sites of fractures due to osteoporosis. These fractures are called vertebral compression fractures.
The adage "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is especially true with osteoporosis. Lifestyle choices can reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis and subsequent vertebral compression fractures. These include low impact exercise, a proper diet with appropriate amounts of calcium and vitamin D, and not smoking. If osteoporosis develops, there are a variety of medicines that primary-care physicians can use to treat the condition and lessen the risk of fractures.
New vertebral compression fractures develop frequently without a history of trauma or injury. An elderly person will often report a sudden "pop" in their back and develop severe pain. Vertebral compression fractures are diagnosed with an X-ray. Sometimes a magnetic resonance image (MRI) is also necessary.
New or acute vertebral compression fractures can be treated using non-surgical and surgical methods. If the fracture is mild and the pain and disability are tolerable for the patient, treatment without surgery is an option. Short-term analgesics (pain medicine), activity modification, bracing, and time for healing can help.
If patients have moderate to severe pain and disability associated with new vertebral compression fractures, there is a surgical treatment option. Kyphoplasty is a minimally invasive surgery usually done on an outpatient basis. The kyphoplasty procedure involves inserting a small balloon into the affected compressed vertebra and inflating the balloon to expand the vertebra. Liquid bone cement that quickly hardens is then injected into the vertebra and stabilizes it. In a large majority of patients, kyphoplasty will relieve the pain and return the patient to normal function.