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Vertebral Compression Fractures (VCF)

Condition: Vertebral compression fractures (VCFs) are fractures in the spine that occur because of force, and cause a person to lose height. They are also known as spinal compression fractures.

Background: Many VCFs are due to osteoporosis and happen to older people. For people with moderate osteoporosis, even tripping or trying to lift an object can result in a fracture. For those with advanced osteoporosis, even smaller motions such as coughing can fracture the spine. VCFs can also be caused by traumatic injuries.

Risk Factors: Post-menopausal women with osteoarthritis are at greatest risk. Examples of other groups at risk include people with cancer and smokers.

History and Symptoms: The primary symptom is pain when standing, walking or bending, although some people do not experience pain. Pain can come on quickly, or progress gradually and be minor or severe. A telltale sign of VCF is a curved or “hunchback” spine.

Physical Exam:  During the exam, the physician will check for loss of sensation, weakness and abnormal reflexes, which could indicate a VCF.

Diagnostic Process: Imaging tests such as X-rays, CT or MRI scans can help a physician find and better understand any abnormalities in the spine, such as bone spurs or alignment issues.

Rehab Management: In most cases, VCFs will heal on their own, if allowed to do so, and pain is manageable. Bracing may also be helpful during rehabilitation. Pain medications or steroid injections can help reduce pain and swelling. Physical therapy may also be prescribed.

Other Resources for Patients and Families: VCFs shift a person’s center of gravity, which means they are more likely to fall. The CDC’s Stopping Elderly Deaths and Injuries (STEADI) program offers fall-prevention resources. NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases ~ National Resource Center also has resources that can help.


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