Skip to Content

Spinal Compression Fractures Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment Options

When the body puts too much pressure on the spine, it can break the bones that make up the spine. These hairline breaks in the spinal bones, also called vertebrae, can cause pain and, eventually, can lead to the bones collapsing. This collapse is a spinal compression fracture.

Spinal compression fractures are more common in older people. Most often, they're due to a loss of bone density or bone cancer.

Sometimes people think the pain caused by spinal fractures is a normal part of aging, so they don't get help for it. But doctors can treat these breaks in the spinal bones and reduce pain and the likelihood it will get worse.

Contact the UPMC Department of Neurosurgery

To make an appointment or learn more:

What is a Spinal Compression Fracture?

Spinal compression fractures are breaks in the bones that make up the spine. They occur when small hairline breaks build up in the spinal bones and weaken them, leading to their collapse.

The tiny fractures alter the strength and shape of the spine, leading to loss of height. These breaks are why some women seem to shrink as they get older — they are more prone to osteoporosis and spinal fractures.

Most of these small breaks happen in the front of the spinal bones. If there are many breaks, the front part of the bone may collapse. This results in wedge-shaped spinal bones that may cause a person to stoop forward, a condition is kyphosis, often called dowager's hump.

Spinal Compression Fracture Causes

Osteoporosis is one of the leading causes of spinal compression fractures. Osteoperosis is when the body's bones lose minerals and become less dense and strong. It happens most often in older women after they've gone through menopause.

Osteoporosis weakens the bones making them more likely to break. It can cause them to collapse and become misshapen, and then they may shift out of place. These injuries are painful and can cause loss of height, and a hump.

Spinal compression fractures can also happen after trauma from a severe accident. They're sometimes due to bone cancer, as tumors weaken the spinal bones.

Spinal Compression Fracture Symptoms

Symptoms of spinal compression fractures may include:

  • Sudden back pain.
  • Loss of height.
  • Curved or humped spine.
  • Back pain that gets worse when standing or walking.

The pain of spinal compression fractures may get better as the bone heals, but it may not. Some people will continue to feel pain after the fracture has healed.

However, not everyone with a spinal fracture feels pain. Some people may feel pain in their abdomen due to the shifting spine squeezing the internal organs.

When to See a Doctor

Talk to a doctor about back pain if:

  • It does not go away after a few days.
  • It gets progressively worse and not better.
  • It causes numbness, tingling, or difficulty walking.

Any of these can indicate that the back injury impacts your spinal cord.

Spinal Compression Fractures Diagnosis

Doctors diagnose a spinal compression fracture with a physical exam. They'll ask about pain and other symptoms.

To see what's happened in the back, they'll order imaging studies, including X-rays, CT scans or MRI studies. They may order a bone biopsy if they suspect the fractures are due to bone cancer.

Spinal Compression Fractures Treatment

Treatment for a spinal compression fracture varies based on how bad the injury is and what caused it.

Non-surgical treatment

UPMC's neurosurgeons treat most of these breaks with the following:

  • Pain medicine, including acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
  • They may offer narcotics and muscle relaxants for short periods.
  • Antidepressants can help relieve nerve-related pain.
  • Lifestyle changes, including lower activity levels.
  • Bone-strengthening drugs (bisphosphonates) treat osteoporosis. These medicines can stop the loss of bone and reduce the likelihood of more breaks.
  • A back brace to reduce motion while the injury heals.


Another option for treating spinal compression fractures is surgery. Doctors may suggest surgery only after more conservative medical approaches have failed to provide results for patients seeking pain relief, increased mobility, and improved quality of life.

Surgical treatments include various types of advanced minimally invasive surgery such as vertebroplasty or kyphoplasty.

Minimally invasive spine surgery uses advanced techniques and technology to treat the spine without disrupting the surrounding soft tissues leading to faster recovery times.

Most people who get these surgeries go home the same day or after one night's stay in the hospital.