• Clinical science

Vertebral fractures

Summary

Vertebral fractures can be caused by direct or indirect trauma and are more likely to occur in patients with decreased bone density (osteoporosis, osseous metastases). Fractures may be stable or, if there is a risk of damage to the spinal cord, unstable. Diagnosis involves a detailed neurological exam and imaging (x-ray, CT, etc). Stable fractures can be treated conservatively with analgesics and physical therapy. Unstable fractures require surgical intervention such as spinal fusion (spondylodesis), which joins vertebrae through internal fixation. Due to the close proximity to essential anatomical structures (spinal cord, blood vessels), the vertebral fractures and their surgical treatment can cause serious complications.

Epidemiology

References:[1]

Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.

Etiology

References:[1][2]

Classification

Stability of vertebral fractures

  • Stable
    • The structural stability of the spine remains intact.
    • No neurologic deficits
  • Unstable
    • The structural stability of the spine is compromised.
    • The spine can move as two or more independent units, which may cause spinal cord injury.

A dorsal spine injury (vertebral arches, processes, and their ligaments) is always unstable and has a high probability of spinal cord injury!

Types of vertebral fractures

References:[3][2][4]

Clinical features

  • Local pain on pressure, percussion, and compression
  • Palpable unevenness or disruption of the vertebral process alignment
  • Strong ventral compression with structural kyphosis
  • Paravertebral hematoma
  • Weakness or numbness/tingling
  • Depending on complications and any accompanying injuries, further symptoms, potentially as severe as paralysis, are possible.
  • Neurogenic shock

References:[5][6]

Subtypes and variants

Atlas fracture

  • Definition: fracture of the atlas (first cervical vertebra)
    • Injury mode: axial force (e.g., swimming accident caused by jumping head-first into shallow water)
  • Symptoms
    • Painful restriction of movement
    • Asymptomatic course is also possible
    • Neck ache, paravertebral hematoma with dysphagia
    • Neurologic deficits, such as Horner syndrome
  • Diagnostics
  • Treatment: immobilization for stable fractures; surgery for dislocations

Dens fracture

  • Definition: fracture of the dens axis (second cervical vertebral body)
  • Epidemiology: ∼ 10-15% of all cervical fractures
  • Etiology
    • Head or neck injury as a result of a fall or blunt trauma
    • A contributing factor is loss of bone substance as a result of a osteoporosis (mostly seen in elderly patients).
  • Symptoms
  • Diagnostics
    • X-ray of the spinal cord to discern an atlantoaxial dislocation CT or MRI
  • Treatment: immobilization for stable fractures, surgery for dislocations

References:[7][8][9][10][11]

Diagnostics

  • Physical exam
    • Detailed neurologic exam (cranial nerves, motor and sensory components, coordination, and reflexes)
    • Rectal exam to assess sphincter activation
    • In trauma scenarios, a secondary survey to assess for associated injuries should be done.
  • Imaging: to assess the stability of the fracture (see “Classification” above), spinal cord lesions
    • Anterior-posterior and lateral x-ray
    • CT: The axial image in particular helps localize the fracture and allows for an assessment of (posterior edge) stability.
    • MRI: most sensitive tool for detecting spinal cord lesions

Do not delay urgent interventions (e.g., intubation, fluid resuscitation) in favor of imaging in patients with suspected injury to the spine who are unconscious and/or show signs of hemodynamic or respiratory compromise.

References:[12][13]

Differential diagnoses

Cervical spine distortion (whiplash injury)

  • Etiology: Often seen after car accidents due to abrupt flexion/extension movement of the neck
  • Symptoms
    • Headache, neck ache, and/or pain radiating into the back of the head, the shoulders, or the arms
    • Pain-based reduction in neck range of motion and palpable muscle tension of the shoulders and neck, as well as arm and hand paresthesia
    • General symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, fatigue, insomnia, tinnitus, and problems with concentration
  • Imaging
    • X-ray of the cervical spine
    • CT on suspicion of changes in the spinal canal and neurologic deficits
    • Doppler ultrasound if injury to vessels in the neck is suspected
  • Treatment
    • Uncomplicated distortion
      • If necessary, short-term NSAIDs to treat muscular tension
      • Active exercise treatment
    • In case of fractures or spinal cord lesions: surgery

References:[14][15]

The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.

Treatment

General

Conservative treatment

  • Indication: stable fractures
  • Procedures
    • Pain medication
    • Physical therapy
    • External bracing and orthotics to maintain spinal alignment, promote healing, and control pain through immobilization for about 8–12 weeks

Surgical treatment

  • Spondylodesis
    • Indications: unstable fractures and/or neurological symptoms
    • Approach: fusion of two or more vertebral bodies via internal fixation using plates, rods, screws, or cages
  • Minimally invasive procedures
    • Indication: stable vertebral compression fractures with progressive pain or kyphosis despite conservative treatment
    • Procedures

To minimize risk of spinal cord lesions causing permanent neurological injury, treatment of unstable fractures should be initiated as soon as possible.

References:[16][12][17]

Complications

References:[12]

We list the most important complications. The selection is not exhaustive.