What Are Painful Spinal Compression Fractures?

Back pain is commonly seen as an inevitable part of getting older, but it can be a symptom of a more serious condition. If you are nearing age 60, it may be a sign that you have tiny cracks in your vertebrae, the bones that form your spine. When these small hairline fractures increase in number, they can eventually cause a vertebra to collapse, which is called spinal compression fracture.

What are the Causes?

Soft, weakened bones are the primary cause. Compression fractures are usually caused by the bone-thinning condition osteoporosis, especially if you are a woman over age 50 who has been through menopause.

When bones are brittle, your vertebrae aren’t strong enough to support your spine in everyday activities. When you bend to lift an object, miss a step, or slip on a carpet, you can put your spinal bones at risk of fracture. Even coughing or sneezing can cause compression fractures if you have severe osteoporosis.

After a number of small compression fractures, your body begins to show the effects, and the strength and shape of the spine can change. For example, you may lose height because your spine is shorter.

Most compression fractures happen in the front part of the vertebra. When you get enough of them, the front part of the bone can collapse. The back of the vertebra is made of harder bone, so it stays intact. That creates a wedge-shaped vertebra, which can lead to the stooped posture you might know as a dowager’s hump. Doctors call it kyphosis.

What are the Symptoms?

The main symptom you will notice with a spinal compression fracture is back pain. It may start gradually and get worse over time or come on suddenly and sharply. But regardless of how it happens, it’s important to let your doctor know about it, particularly if you’re a woman who is near or over age 50.

Most compression fractures — tiny cracks in the bones of your spine, or vertebra — in women at this age are caused by osteoporosis, a condition defined by bones that are weak and brittle. Treatment of a compression fracture can help lower your risk for more fractures.


Along with back pain, spinal compression fractures also can cause symptoms such as:

  • Pain that gets worse when you stand or walk but with some relief when you lie down
  • Trouble bending or twisting your body
  • Loss of height
  • A curved, stooped shape to your spine

The pain typically happens with a slight back strain during an everyday activity such as:

  • Lifting a bag of groceries
  • Bending to the floor to pick something up
  • Slipping on a rug or making a misstep
  • Lifting a suitcase out of the trunk of a car
  • Lifting the corner of a mattress when changing bed linens

What are the Treatments?

Pain from a spinal compression fracture allowed to heal naturally can last as long as three months. But the pain usually improves significantly in a matter of days or weeks. Pain management may include analgesic pain medicines, bed rest, back bracing, and physical activity and pain medications.