Women Who Don't Know They Have Broken Vertebrae

One in five women over the age of 50 will break one or more vertebrae in their spine. Shockingly, approximately two thirds of broken vertebrae are not diagnosed and therefore not treated when they occur.

Patients will seek help for low back pain, and that’s where many doctors leave the diagnosis.  The patient's pain is often just thought of as general back pain, such as from a muscle strain or other soft tissue injury, or as a common part of aging. The underlying cause(s) of low back pain are not identified, and the patient goes home at heightened risk for another fracture. That’s because damaged bones steal nutrients from healthy bones in order to heal, which puts people who have had a fracture at increased risk for additional fractures. With each fracture, recovery gets harder and longer.

Failure to diagnose these spinal fractures may lead to increasingly poor posture (vertebral bones can lose upwards of 20% in height due to fracture); and inadequate treatment of weak bones elsewhere in the body that leads to osteoporosis.

Spinal compression fractures that occur as a result of osteoporosis are actually quite common, occurring in approximately 700,000 people in the U.S. each year.

woman broken vertebrae

A recent study carefully evaluated 49 post-menopausal women who complained of low-back pain. At least one vertebral fracture was found in 70% of these women!  They also suffered from loss of posture because the bones were losing their shape. Many of these findings were subtle, but critical, and may have been missed by routine x-rays.

While it may seem basic, the authors of the study noted that measurements of posture were important in helping to predict weak bones and early bone deformity. One measure is called the “Wall-Occiput Distance”  - this is the distance between the back of your head when you lean against a wall with your feet fairly close to the wall. If your posture is good, the back of your head should be able to touch the wall when your feet and buttocks are also touching the wall. Forward lean in this position means that your posture is poor and could represent increasing spine deformity.

The important message from this new study is that low back pain in post-menopausal women could be the first sign of weak bones, or one or more fractured vertebrae - even if the regular x-rays don’t show much change.

Nutrition is the foundation of any bone health program and nutritional supplements for bones* may decrease the risk of osteoporosis and fracture when combined with exercise and a healthy lifestyle. If you know anyone with low back pain, do them a favor by encouraging them to have their posture checked and have their doctor look specifically for broken vertebrae. And all adults can stand to improve their nutritional status and begin taking their bone health seriously.

*Adequate calcium and vitamin D throughout life, as part of a well-balanced diet, may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

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