Back-Breaking - Postmenopausal Women At Risk of Vertebral Fractures

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • I keep remembering changing my stride as a child as I walked to school with the words, “Step on a crack, break your back,” echoing in my head. But breaking your back through a vertebral fracture increasingly is a real danger for postmenopausal women.

    New York Times reporter Jane E. Brody reported that a quarter of postmenopausal women can face having a compression of the front of a spinal column vertebra.  Furthermore, two in every five women by the age of 80 have had one or more of these types of fractures, which can result in chronic back pain. People who have multiple fractures of this type – which are approximately 20-30% of cases – often hunch over and may also suffer from kyphosis, which impairs breathing and compresses the abdomen.

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    According to Dr. Scott Boden of, the symptoms of vertebral fractures include:
    -    The sudden onset of back pain
    -    Standing or walking usually makes the pain worse
    -    Lying on one’s back makes the pain less intense
    -    Limited spinal mobility
    -    Height loss
    -    Deformity and disability

    Boden noted that most people who are diagnosed with a compression fracture describe the onset of pain after participating in a fairly routine activity that may slightly strain or jar the back. These activities could include lifting a bag of groceries, bending to pick up something off the floor, or falling. People with advanced osteoporosis can suffer a vertebral fracture through sneezing, coughing, or turning over in bed.

    The Mayo Clinic reports that risk factors for osteoporosis include:

    • Low calcium intake, which “contributes to diminished bone density, early bone loss and an increased risk of fractures.”
    • Tobacco use,
    • Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia.
    • A sedentary lifestyle.
    • Excessive alcohol consumption.
    • Corticosteroid medications.
    • Other medications.

    However, Brody noted that researchers have found that about 33% of postmenopausal women who have vertebral fractures have osteopenia instead of osteoporosis. According to the October 2003 issue of the Harvard Health Letter, the risk factors of osteopenia mirror that of osteoporosis.  The newsletter recommends getting 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercise on most days. Osteopenia can be treated exercise and nutrition, as well as through medications.

    Just because you’ve broken a vertebra doesn’t mean that you know about it. “But while vertebral fractures are a telltale sign of bone loss among women over age 50 and men over age 60, most who suffer them are unaware of the problem and receive no treatment to prevent future fractures in vertebrae, hips or wrists, the bones most likely to break under minor stress when weakened,” Brody wrote. “Yet, if a vertebral fracture is diagnosed and properly treated, the risk of future fractures, including hip fractures, is reduced by half or more, studies have shown.” Brody noted that many doctors miss diagnosing these fractures; diagnoses are only made in 25-33% of cases thanks to x-rays.

  • Both Brody and Boden note that any severe pain from spinal fractures may subside and turn into chronic pain in the area where the fracture occurred. “Additionally, some patients experience back pain long after the fractured bone has healed due to changed mechanics in the back and possibly due to inactivity,” Boden warned.

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    In general, researchers believe that vertebral fractures indicate a person’s bone health is worse than what is showing up on bone density test, according to the New York Times article. In these cases, researchers encourage patients to talk to their doctors about being prescribe bone-preserving medications.

Published On: June 29, 2011