A cervical compression fracture is the least common of all degenerative vertebral breaks, since the neck bears the smallest amount of weight of all the spinal regions. However, compression fractures in the neck still do occur, and can still cause serious health concerns for affected patients. Being that the anatomy of the neck is both delicate to begin with, and suffers degeneration as a normal part of its lifecycle, significant fractures in the cervical spine often have neurological effects, making them potentially problematic and possibly, even disabling.
This discussion focuses on the incidence of compression vertebral fracture in the neck, including the causes of these injuries and the consequences which might befall the patient when they occur.
What is a Cervical Compression Fracture?
Compression fractures are vertebral breaks, but most are not induced by significant trauma. Instead, compression fractures typically occur simply due to age and spinal degeneration. As people get older, the vertebral bones weaken and can simply collapse, partially or fully, under the weight of the body or the stresses placed upon it.
Virtually all compression fractures occur in the elderly, although they can also occur in younger people who suffer from skeletal conditions and in patients who are morbidly obese.
Most compression breaks occur in the lower or middle back, since these are regions which actually bear large amounts of weight. The neck only supports the head; but this is still a hefty burden, particularly when vertebral deterioration is severe.
If you imagine a compression fracture, picture a crushing of the vertebral bone instead of a sharp break, such as that suffered during acute trauma. In many cases, parts of the vertebra become brittle and simply can not stand up to the stresses placed upon them. This is when a compression break might occur.
Compression Fracture Consequences
Although it sounds terrible to imagine a broken vertebra in the spine, the fact is that most compression fractures are not painful. In fact, many are never diagnosed at all. Since the spine is already so deteriorated, the fractures can occur over time and rarely become acute generators of pain. However, this is not an absolute. Some patients do suffer chronic or acute neck pain from a compression fracture event. This is particularly true for patients who notice the pain immediately following a trigger, such as a fall or car accident. Although the recent trauma may not have directly caused the fracture, it may cause escalated pain or begin pain through purely physical or purely psychological mechanisms.
Regardless of whether a fracture is painful or not, neurological effects are still possible and are actually quite common in the neck. The broken vertebra can impinge on spinal nerves roots, eliciting pinched nerves in the neck. The damaged bone can also cause central spinal stenosis in the neck, possibly creating a terrible pattern of full body symptoms which might include pain, tingling, numbness, weakness, incontinence and the inability to stand or walk.
Cervical Compression Fracture Treatment
All compression fractures are unique events and should be treated as such. No universal treatment is always successful and many of these vertebral injuries require no therapy whatsoever. Each must be evaluated by a spinal specialist to be sure that the injury is not compromising the structural integrity of the vertebral column or creating the potential for lasting neurological deficits.
Many compression fractures will heal, or at least stabilize, on their own, without treatment. Others might require conservative care or even surgery, such as cervical kyphoplasty or vertebroplasty.
Risks factors for compression breaks include a generally poor constitution and fragile nature common to the elderly. Osteoporosis and low bone density are definite contributors. Obesity and skeletal abnormalities are also risk factors at any age. To learn more about how to prevent or treat compression fractures in the cervical spine, speak to your orthopedist.