Is there some way to tell how someone will do after a vertebral compression fracture? My father-in-law has just been sent to the hospital for what his doctor thinks might be this type of fracture.
Vertebral compression fracture refers to a mini-collapse of a vertebra in the spine. Tiny fracture lines in the bone (usually the front half of the vertebra) result in the bone taking on a wedge- or pie shape when viewed on X-rays from the side.
This type of fracture is most common in older adults who have osteoporosis (decreased bone mass or brittle bones). Just the weight of the body and pressure from postural changes (stooped head and shoulders) can put enough pressure (or compression, hence the name compression fracture) on the bone to cause a collapse.
Prognosis (how well the patient will do) depends on a number of things such as how severe is the fracture and how much of the bone is involved. Certainly, the degree of osteoporosis will make a difference in bone healing and recovery. The fracture itself is a determining factor.
The doctor will look at imaging studies (X-rays, MRIs, CT scans) to see if the fracture is stable (bone is broken but the broken pieces haven't shifted or moved apart). More severe fractures with distraction of the fracture (broken pieces have moved apart) may require more extensive surgery using bone graft, plates, and/or screws to hold everything together while it heals.
A distracted fracture with jagged edges increases the risk for nerve damage. A partially or fully torn ligament puts the patient at risk for instability. Either of these conditions can lead to further problems if not treated quickly and effectively. Other prognostic factors include age, general health, and the presence of other problems such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and so on.