Many people are surprised to learn that vertebral fractures are quite common: up to 250,000 vertebral fractures are diagnosed each year. Most of the fractures occur in older people who have fragile bones, with the underlying condition called osteoporosis. Many of these patients have not yet been diagnosed with this condition. The fractures commonly occur with normal activities or minor incidents, such as a misstep or minor fall. In these cases, the weakened bone does not have the strength to handle the forces placed on it.
About half of all vertebral fractures occur silently, without any significant pain. Others can be very painful and disabling. The majority of these fractures, even if they’re painful to start with, heal on their own with little or no residual pain or disability.
Standard treatments for a vertebral fracture include pain medication, progressive activity, and the use of a brace for support. Even when the fracture has healed, there remains a high risk of a new fracture. Evaluation and treatment of the underlying osteoporosis is very important in order to minimize this risk.
To provide relief of the pain of a vertebral fracture, two types of minimally invasive procedures are available. These procedures, vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty, are most commonly used in cases of severe pain caused by a vertebral fracture that does not improve over a number of weeks with pain medication and treatment with a brace.
Both vertebroplasty and kyphoplasty procedures involve the placement of cement into the fractured vertebra through small, minimally invasive incisions in the skin under x-ray guidance.
The procedure known as vertebroplasty is generally done with the patient sedated but awake, in an x-ray suite or an operating room. In vertebroplasty:
- A bone cement is injected under pressure directly into the fractured vertebra.
- Once in position, the cement hardens in about 10 minutes, congealing the fragments of the fractured vertebra and providing immediate stability.
The procedure known as kyphoplasty is commonly done under general anesthesia in an operating room, although kyphoplasty can also be done under a local anesthesia. Kyphoplasty:
- A balloon catheter, similar to the one used in angioplasty of the heart, is guided into the vertebra and inflated with a liquid under pressure.
- As the balloon inflates, it can help to actively restore the collapse in the vertebra due to the fracture and can also correct abnormal wedging of the broken vertebra.
- Once the balloon is maximally inflated, it is deflated and removed, and the large cavity created is filled with bone cement lower pressure than in a vertebroplasty.
- The cement then hardens in place, maintaining any correction of collapse and wedging.
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Kyphoplasty can also be very helpful when there is severe collapse of the broken vertebra or wedging, with more collapse in the front of the spine than the back resulting in the spine tending to tilt forward. By correcting the wedging, kyphoplasty may help restore the spine to a more normal alignment and prevent severe kyphotic (“hunchback”) deformity to the spine. In someone who has had multiple fractures with previous wedging, kyphoplasty can prevent further worsening of the deformity.
Both techniques are successful about 90% of the time in relieving the pain of fractured vertebrae. Kyphoplasty is more helpful in correcting vertebral collapse and wedging if it is done within six weeks of the fracture.
Potential Risks and Complications
These cement injection procedures are not without significant risks, so the decision to use these procedures is made on a case-by-case basis and should not be taken lightly.
- The most common complication is leakage of cement out of the vertebra with injection and before final hardening.
- If the cement leaks back into the spinal canal it can compress the spinal cord and nerves, causing new pain and neurologic problems.
- There have also been rare case reports of pulmonary embolism of the lungs and even death associated with these procedures.
Currently, there is no FDA-approved substance to inject into a vertebral body. Bone cement (polymethymethacrylate) has been the only substance substantially studied, but to date it has not received clearance for injection into a vertebral body. Part of the problem with bone cement is that when it is in the very viscous state, it can leak out into the veins around the spine, especially if it is inserted under high pressure. Once it gets into the veins it can embolize to the lungs and there have been case reports of severe morbidity (i.e. respiratory distress or death) associated with embolization.
Overall, however, these percutaneous vertebral body cement injection procedures represent a new advance and a helpful part of the treatment of vertebral fractures in select cases. With all of this in mind, the patient and doctor must sit down and discuss whether such a procedure is right for the patient.
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Before kyphoplasty and vertebroplasty were available the gold standard for a compression fracture was rest, time and medications. Compression fractures have a high rate of success in terms of healing although it may take a while (about three months). Generally, most clinicians will wait to see if the fracture will heal on its own.
However, if the patient is in so much pain that he or she cannot function, kyphoplasty or vertebroplasty surgery may be considered sooner. For acute, mild to moderate, activity-related pain, patients are usually advised to probably wait at least three months before making a decision on surgical intervention.