When a vertebral compression fracture develops in the spine and causes back pain, a minimally invasive surgery called vertebroplasty may be considered. This article discusses who may benefit from vertebroplasty, the details of the procedure, and potential risks.

How a Vertebroplasty Can Treat a Compression Fracture

A vertebral compression fracture occurs when the vertebra cannot fully support its load and starts to collapse due to tiny cracks forming in the bone. Typically, the front of the vertebra starts to collapse and begins to take a wedge shape. The collapsing part of the vertebra must lose at least 15% of its normal height to be considered a compression fracture.

Watch: Spinal Compression Fracture Video

Most commonly, these fractures occur in older people who have osteoporosis, but they can also occur due to other causes, such as bone cancer or a high-impact trauma.

See Osteoporosis: The Primary Cause of Collapsed Vertebrae

A vertebroplasty involves carefully guiding a needle through a small puncture in the back and into the damaged vertebra. Once the needle is positioned within the vertebral compression fracture, bone cement is delivered into the tiny cracks. The cement fills the cracks and eventually solidifies, which eliminates the pain source by stabilizing the vertebra and preventing further collapse.


When to Consider Vertebroplasty

Most vertebral compression fractures can be treated without surgery. However, vertebroplasty may be considered if the following are true:

  1. Significant pain has persisted at least 2 weeks. If pain does not start to get better within a week or two, surgery to stabilize the compression fracture might bring quicker pain relief than other methods. Vertebroplasty is typically performed 4 to 6 weeks after the fracture has occurred.

    See Vertebral Fracture Symptoms

  2. Pain worsens with axial load. If pain increases when weight is placed on the spine from above, such as when getting out of bed or carrying a heavy item, it is more likely that the vertebral compression fracture is actually the pain source and would thus respond favorably to a vertebroplasty procedure.
  3. No associated neurologic deficits. If any part of the bone is pushing against the spinal cord or a nerve root and causing neurological deficits, such as tingling, numbness, weakness, and/or problems with coordination, vertebroplasty is unlikely to relieve these signs and symptoms.

    See Diagnosing Vertebral Compression Fractures

  4. No significant kyphosis or other spinal deformity. Vertebroplasty essentially cements the vertebra in its current position, which works fine if the spine is close to its normal shape. However, if one or more vertebral compression fractures have caused the spine to curve too far forward (kyphosis), a different surgery, called kyphoplasty, may be recommended. Kyphoplasty is similar to vertebroplasty, except that it helps restore the damaged vertebrae closer to their normal height, which can correct a kyphosis deformity. With other types of deformity, a different surgery may be needed, such as a fusion.

    Watch Kyphoplasty (Osteoporosis Fracture Treatment) Video

  5. Fracture has not already healed. If the compression fracture has already healed, vertebroplasty is unlikely to help reduce pain.

In addition, the patient must be healthy enough for surgery. For example, if a bone infection is present, or if surgery would not be well tolerated, the procedure should be avoided.


Efficacy of Vertebroplasty

The medical literature has mixed results regarding the efficacy of vertebroplasty, with some studies finding the procedure to be effective while others have been inconclusive or even advised against it. 1 Sebaaly A, Nabhane L, El Khoury FI, Kreichati G, El Rachkidi R. Vertebral augmentation: state of the art. Asian Spine J. 2016; 10(2): 370-6. , 2 Stevenson M, Gomersall T, M Lloyd Jones et al. Percutaneous vertebroplasty and percutaneous balloon kyphoplasty for the treatment of osteoporotic vertebral fractures: a systematic review and cost-effectiveness analysis. Health Technol Assess. 2014; 18(17):1-290. Most of the current literature suggests that, compared to nonsurgical treatments, vertebroplasty may be effective at relieving pain and improving function more quickly.

See Compression Fracture Treatment

There is also a growing body of evidence that vertebroplasty (and kyphoplasty) may help older people who have sustained a vertebral compression fracture to live longer. 3 Chen AT, Cohen DB, Skolasky RL. Impact of nonoperative treatment, vertebroplasty, and kyphoplasty on survival and morbidity after vertebral compression fracture in the medicare population. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2013; 95(19):1729-36. , 4 Edidin AA, Ong KL, Lau E, Kurtz SM. Mortality risk for operated and nonoperated vertebral fracture patients in the medicare population. J Bone Miner Res. 2011; 26(7):1617-26. The reason for this is not yet known and more studies are needed.

See Vertebroplasty vs. Kyphoplasty

Dr. Jay Jagannathan is a neurosurgeon specializing in spine surgery, and he is the Founder and President of a Michigan-based multidisciplinary practice offering neurosurgery, neurology, and pain management services.