A thoracic compression fracture is a break of one or more bones in the middle section of spinal vertebrae, called the thoracic spine. Most fractures are the result of traumatic injuries, as can happen with a bad fall or a car accident. While painful, most compression fractures do not lead to severe medical complications. If a broken vertebrae pinches or damages nearby spinal nerves, however, a person may experience significant numbness. Depending on the severity of symptoms, a patient may need several weeks of bed rest, a back brace, or surgery to overcome a thoracic compression fracture.
The thoracic spine is comprised of 12 vertebrae that extend from the bottom of the neck to the lower back. Spinal compression fractures are more common in the thoracic spine than in the cervical region above or the lumbar region below, as thoracic vertebrae are comparatively thinner and weaker. When a small amount of pressure is placed on the spine, the vertebral column is flexible enough to absorb and disperse it. The bones can be overwhelmed with high-force trauma to the back, however, and not be able to give in enough to prevent fractures.
Some compression fractures are not the result of direct injury. Conditions such as osteoporosis that weaken bone tissue can cause a vertebra to slowly deteriorate, eventually cracking and leading to a thoracic compression fracture. Rarely, a cancerous or benign tumor growing on or near the spinal column can put enough pressure on vertebrae to cause fractures.
A person who experiences a traumatic spine injury is usually aware of the fact immediately, as pain, swelling, and stiffness appear right away. A thoracic compression fracture that results from osteoporosis or another progressive condition tends to gradually worsen, making it difficult to know whether or not a break actually occurred. A person who has severe or worsening back pain should be brought to the emergency room as soon as possible so specialists can determine the nature and seriousness of the injury.
In the hospital, a doctor can take x-rays and computerized tomography scans of the back to look for signs of a thoracic compression fracture. The doctor also performs a thorough physical examination to determine whether the patient is experiencing numbness, tingling, weakness, or cognitive difficulties. Depending on the condition of the patient and any other injuries that might have been incurred in an accident, specialists may need to provide emergency medicine and treatment to stabilize breathing, vital signs, and consciousness.
After determining the severity of a thoracic compression fracture, a doctor can consider several treatment options. When the break is isolated and is unlikely to shatter, a specialist may simply suggest that the patient avoid physical activity for several weeks and attend regular checkups to monitor recovery. Some patients are fitted with back braces to help keep their spines immobile while the vertebrae have time to heal themselves. In the case of a severe injury that impedes on nerves or the spinal cord itself, surgery is necessary to remove bone shards, repair tissue, and fuse vertebrae together.