What Is A Vertebral Compression Fracture?

A vertebral compression fracture is a fracture in the spinal canal. It happens when a vertebra, or backbone, decreases by at least 15% in height due to the fracture. In other words, a vertebra collapses onto itself and the soft tissue around it, causing compression.

A spinal compression fracture occurs most commonly in the:

  • Upper back, or thoracic spine
  • Lower back, or lumbar spine

These spinal canal fractures occur most commonly in women who have gone through menopause (postmenopausal) and suffer from osteoporosis. However, they also can pose a health threat to some men. One-quarter of all postmenopausal females in the United States have had one of these fractures.

There are other types of fractures in the spine. A burst fracture typically occurs after a high-velocity accident. Similarly, most fractures occur in the front bone of the spine. When the harder bones in the back compress and fracture, it’s known as a wedge fracture.

Vertebral compression fracture symptoms

These fractures are usually characterized by acute back pain. Other symptoms of a spinal compression fracture may include loss of height and muscle.

Left untreated these fractures can lead to spinal deformity caused by the fusion of collapsed vertebrae. The deformity is referred to as kyphosis. You’ve likely heard of this condition as hunchback or dowager’s hump. Rarely do these fractures lead to nerve or spinal cord damage.

These fractures can result in other complications, however, such as:

  • Reduced spinal range-of-motion
  • Lung disorders, such pneumonia or a collapsed lung
  • Crowding of internal organs
  • Constipation
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Progressive muscle weakness
  • Deep venous thrombosis (DVT), which refers to blood clots in the lower leg
  • Loss of independence
  • Increased admissions to nursing homes
  • Increased mortality risk

Vertebral Compression Fractures Causes

Causes may include:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Trauma
  • Metastatic cancers


Osteoporosis is characterized by bones that are weak and thin. This makes them more susceptible to fracture. It is the most common cause of compression fractures.

Your doctor can diagnose osteoporosis. They’ll use an imaging technique called DEXA, or dual energy X-ray absorptiometry. The technique measures the density of your bone, which will be low in the case of osteoporosis.


Trauma of the vertebrae of the spine can also lead to spinal compression fractures, even in those with healthy bones.

This trauma can occur from:

  • A fall
  • An automobile accident
  • A forceful jum
  • Lifting a heavy object
  • Any stress that exceeds the breaking point of the spine

Metastatic cancers

If you’re younger than 55 and have no prior history of trauma