A spine fracture is a break in a bone. The break can cause one or more bones of the spine to collapse and may contribute to issues with supporting discs and nearby nerve roots. These fractures occur most often in the middle portion of the spine, also known as the thoracic spine. The areas most often affected are the lower portion of the backbone (T11 and T12) and the first vertebra of the lumbar (lower) spine. Here’s what you need to know about thoracic spine fractures.
What Causes Thoracic Compression Fractures?
Most healthy bones of the spine can withstand a certain degree of pressure without breaking. Compression fractures occur when too much pressure is placed on a bone. Most thoracic fractures are caused by sudden, forceful impacts or hard falls where the head moves the upper body forward and places pressure on mid-spine vertebral bodies.
Progressive conditions like osteoporosis, which weakens bone tissue, can contribute to a thoracic spine fracture in older adults. Experienced by 40 percent of women by the time they reach age 80, osteoporotic fractures are the most common type of compression fractures. Metastatic disease (cancer that spreads from another part of the body) is a less common cause of thoracic spine fractures. Patients may also report:
- Severe pain extending to the back, arms, or legs
- Numbness in adjacent areas if nerves are compressed
- Pain that may become worse with certain movements
- Difficulty with mobility or stability
- Noticeable spinal weakness
How Is a Thoracic Spine Fracture Diagnosed?
When a thoracic spine fracture occurs due to a fall or trauma, most people realize something is wrong due to the sudden pain felt. However, pain may not develop until a break occurs or becomes more extensive with bones weakened by osteoporosis. Diagnosis of a thoracic spine fracture typically involves a physical exam, a review of medical history, a detailed description of the pain (e.g. where it’s felt, how intense the pain is, and what seems to trigger symptoms) and image tests to confirm the presence and location of a fracture in the mid-spine. Diagnosis may also involve:
- Neurological exams
- CT or MRI scans to determine if there’s another source of pain around the area of the fracture, such as a herniated or slipped disc
- Nuclear bone scans to determine the age of a fracture
What Are the Treatment Options?
Most thoracic spine fractures are treated with non-surgical solutions. Such care may involve pain and anti-inflammatory medications, bracing to reduce movement to allow the fracture to heal, and decreasing or modifying activities until the fracture heals. Surgery that could include the injection of a special type of cement (kyphoplasty or vertebroplasty surgery) may become an option if a fracture isn’t healing as expected or if there are neurological complications.
In some cases, removal of bone fragments and spinal fusion surgery or various spinal fusion alternatives may be recommended when a fracture causes a loss of vertebral body height of 50 percent or more and compromises the stability of the backbone. The risk of spinal fractures can be reduced by maintaining a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and taking precautions to avoid excessive pressure or stress on the thoracic spine.
At The Spine Institute Center, we specialize in a wide variety of fusion and non-fusion procedures, from artificial disc replacement to extreme lateral interbody fusion. Place your trust in Dr. Hyun Bae and his team of expertly trained spine surgeons to diagnose the source of your pain and help you find an effective solution for relief. To schedule an in-person evaluation, call our office at 310-828-7757 today.