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Compression Fractures: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

June 21st, 2024 | 6 min. read

Compression Fractures: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options
Caroline Faught

Caroline Faught

Licensed Physical Therapist, PT, DPT // EW Motion Therapy Homewood

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Compression fractures, while less commonly discussed than other types of fractures, can significantly impact one’s quality of life, particularly in older adults. Understanding what makes these fractures unique, their causes, symptoms, and available treatment options is crucial for effective management and recovery. Physical therapy is often essential in managing the symptoms of compression fractures - our team at EW Motion Therapy can create treatment plans to reduce pain, improve mobility, and help you return to your favorite activities. Even if you decide that our services don’t fit your needs, you can still read this article as we explore compression fractures in detail, with a particular focus on how physical therapy can play a pivotal role in the healing process.


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What are compression fractures?

Compression fractures occur when one or more bones in the spine weaken and become compressed. Unlike other fractures, which typically involve a complete or partial break in a bone due to trauma, compression fractures primarily result from the vertebrae's structural collapse. These fractures can lead to a decrease in the height of the affected vertebrae, resulting in pain and spinal deformity.


Most fractures, such as those in the limbs, result from direct trauma or impact, causing a bone to break into two or more pieces. In contrast, compression fractures typically involve the vertebral bones and are often associated with osteoporosis, a condition characterized by weakened bones. While trauma can also cause compression fractures, especially in individuals with healthy bone density, the primary difference lies in the mechanism and location of the fracture.


Common causes of compression fractures

The leading cause of compression fractures is osteoporosis, which decreases bone density and makes bones more susceptible to fractures. As bones weaken, even minor stress or falls can result in fractures. Other causes include:


  1. Trauma: High-impact events such as car accidents or falls can cause compression fractures, particularly in individuals with healthy bones.
  2. Cancer: Cancer that spreads to the bones, such as multiple myeloma or bone tumors, can weaken the vertebrae, leading to fractures.
  3. Long-term use of steroids: Prolonged use of corticosteroids can weaken bones, increasing the risk of fractures.


Who is most affected by compression fractures?

The following groups are particularly vulnerable to compression fractures:


  1. Elderly individuals: Age-related bone density loss increases the risk, as does a lower body weight that can come with aging.
  2. Postmenopausal women: Hormonal changes after menopause can accelerate bone loss.
  3. Individuals with osteoporosis: Those diagnosed with osteoporosis or those with a family history of the condition, are at a significantly higher risk.
  4. Smokers: Those who smoke are at a higher risk of multiple medical complications.


Recognizing the symptoms of compression fractures

Compression fractures can manifest in various ways, with some individuals experiencing mild symptoms while others may suffer from severe pain. Often, a compression fracture presents as a combination of multiple symptoms. Common symptoms include:


  1. Back pain: A sudden onset of back pain, especially in the mid-to-lower spine, is a typical symptom. Pay attention to whether the pain worsens with movement or when standing for long periods.
  2. Loss of height: Compression fractures can cause a noticeable decrease in height over time.
  3. Spinal deformity: The collapse of vertebrae can lead to kyphosis, a forward curvature of the spine, resulting in a hunched posture.
  4. Limited mobility: Pain and spinal deformity can restrict movement and reduce physical activity levels.
  5. Numbness or weakness: In severe cases, compression fractures can impinge on spinal nerves, leading to numbness, tingling, or weakness in the limbs.


It is crucial to seek medical attention if you experience sudden back pain, especially if you have risk factors for osteoporosis or have suffered a recent trauma. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential to prevent further complications and ensure optimal recovery.


Treatment options for compression fractures


Medical treatments

Treatment for compression fractures aims to alleviate pain, stabilize the spine, and improve function. The best treatment for you is based on the severity of your fracture, your overall health, and whatever will help you return to your daily activities. Medical treatments include:


  1. Pain management: Medications such as acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may be prescribed to manage pain.
  2. Bracing: A back brace can help immobilize the spine, allowing the fracture to heal and providing pain relief during movement.
  3. Bone-strengthening medications: Bisphosphonates and other medications may be prescribed to improve bone density and prevent further fractures.
  4. Minimally invasive procedures: Procedures such as vertebroplasty or kyphoplasty can stabilize the fracture and relieve pain. These involve injecting a special cement into the fractured vertebra.
  5. Lifestyle modifications: Exercise, taking calcium and vitamin D supplements, and quitting smoking can improve mild fracture symptoms.


The role of physical therapy

Physical therapy is a cornerstone in the rehabilitation of compression fractures. It plays a vital role in pain management, improving mobility, and enhancing the overall quality of life. Your physical therapist will tailor a treatment plan to address the specific symptoms of your fracture. The primary benefits of physical therapy for compression fractures include:


  1. Pain relief: Physical therapists employ various techniques, such as manual therapy, to alleviate pain and improve mobility without exacerbating the fracture.
  2. Strengthening exercises: Focused on core and back muscles to support a neutral spine, improve posture, and increase awareness of body mechanics to minimize stress on the spine during daily activities.
  3. Flexibility exercises: Gentle range of motion exercises enhance spinal flexibility and reduce stiffness.
  4. Balance training: Improves coordination and prevents falls during exercise or lifting, which is crucial for individuals with weakened bones.
  5. Aerobic conditioning: Low-impact aerobic exercises such as walking or swimming can help maintain cardiovascular health without stressing the spine.
  6. Posture correction: Therapists provide guidance on proper posture and body mechanics to ensure a neutral spine, prevent further injury, and reduce strain on the spine during movement.
  7. Education and lifestyle modifications: Physical therapists educate patients on lifestyle changes, including nutrition and exercise, to support bone health and prevent future fractures.


Compression fractures are a significant concern, particularly for older adults and those with osteoporosis. Understanding the unique nature of these fractures, recognizing symptoms early, and seeking appropriate treatment can make a substantial difference in recovery. While medical treatments and minimally invasive procedures provide relief and stability, physical therapy is instrumental in long-term rehabilitation. By focusing on pain management, mobility improvement, and lifestyle modifications, physical therapy helps individuals regain their independence and improve their quality of life. 


If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of a compression fracture, consult with a healthcare provider to explore the best treatment options tailored to your needs. We consider it a privilege at EW Motion Therapy to help our clients manage pain and return to their favorite activities. To learn more about what your physical therapy treatment might cost, click the button below to download our free pricing guide.


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