What is a chest compression fracture?

A thoracic compression fracture is a break in one or more bones in the middle section of the spinal vertebrae, called the thoracic spine. Most fractures are the result of traumatic injuries, such as can occur with a serious fall or car accident. Although painful, most compression fractures do not lead to serious medical complications. However, if a broken vertebra pinches or damages nearby spinal nerves, a person may experience significant numbness. Depending on the severity of symptoms, a patient may need several weeks of bed rest, a back brace, or surgery to overcome a chest compression fracture.

The thoracic spine is made up of 12 vertebrae that extend from the lower neck to the lower back. Spinal compression fractures are more common in the thoracic spine than in the upper cervical or lower lumbar region, as the thoracic vertebrae are comparatively thinner and weaker. When a small amount of pressure is applied to the spine, the spine is flexible enough to absorb and disperse it. However, the bones can be overwhelmed by high-force trauma to the back and may not yield enough to prevent fractures.

Some compression fractures are not the result of a direct injury. Conditions such as osteoporosis that weaken bone tissue can cause a vertebra to slowly deteriorate, eventually cracking and causing a thoracic compression fracture. Rarely, a cancerous or benign tumor growing in or near the spine can put enough pressure on the vertebrae to cause fractures.

A person who suffers a traumatic spinal injury is usually aware of the fact immediately, as the pain, swelling, and stiffness appear immediately. A chest compression fracture resulting from osteoporosis or another progressive condition tends to gradually worsen, making it difficult to know if a break has actually occurred. A person who has severe or worsening back pain should be taken to the emergency room as soon as possible so specialists can determine the nature and severity of the injury.

In the hospital, a doctor may take X-rays and CT scans of your back to look for signs of a chest compression fracture. The doctor also performs a complete physical exam to determine if the patient is experiencing numbness, tingling, weakness, or cognitive difficulties. Depending on the patient's condition and any other injuries incurred in an accident, specialists may need to provide emergency medication and treatment to stabilize breathing, vital signs, and consciousness.

After determining the severity of a chest compression fracture, a doctor may consider several treatment options. When rest is isolated and unlikely to be broken, a specialist may simply suggest that the patient avoid physical activity for several weeks and attend regular check-ups to monitor recovery. Some patients have braces to help keep their spines immobile while the vertebrae have time to heal. In the case of a serious injury that impairs the nerves or the spinal cord itself, surgery is necessary to remove bone fragments, repair tissue, and fuse the vertebrae.

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