How doctors treat broken vertebrae depends on the type of injury, the cause, its location, and many other factors. Treatment can range from conservative treatment — e.g., bracing — to complex surgery to stabilize the vertebrae and protect the spinal cord from additional damage.
Determining a Treatment Plan for a Broken Vertebrae
When someone with suspected broken vertebrae comes into the emergency department, doctors go to work to determine the damage done and to put a treatment plan in place. Medical imaging plays a crucial role in this process. This may include:
- Spinal X-rays
- CT scans for a 3-D assessment of the injuries
- MRIs to see if there is damage to ligaments, tendons, or muscles
The doctor may also conduct a number of neurological tests. This allows medical staff to understand if the patient suffered spinal cord or nerve damage.
Most broken vertebrae are relatively minor cases. They heal in a few months and require immobilization with a back brace. Patients may also receive pain medication and need to limit some activities.
In the most severe cases, doctors will need to take quick action to protect the patient’s airway and ensure he or she can breathe without assistance. The doctor may need to perform surgery to remove parts of the broken vertebra and to place plates, screws, and rods in the back to stabilize the injury.
Common Causes of Broken Vertebrae
Falls are one of the most common causes of broken vertebrae. A fall from a height can cause serious damage to the spine and result in spinal cord damage. When the person has osteoporosis or another condition that weakens bones, even a relatively minor slip and fall can cause broken vertebrae. Whether it be the thoracic vertebrae, the cervical vertebrae, or the lumbar vertebrae, broken vertebrae happen in many ways.
Other common causes of broken vertebrae include:
- Car accidents
- Motorcycle accidents
- Car versus bicycle or pedestrian accidents
- Contact sports
- Diving accidents
- Boating collisions
- Spinal tumors
- Cancer that has spread to the bones
- Untreated bacterial or fungal infections
Symptoms of Broken Vertebrae and Lasting Damage
When it comes to broken vertebrae with spinal cord involvement, location matters. The higher the point of injury, the more devastating the spinal cord involvement could be. Most cases do not leave patients with lasting damage, but those that do can cause paralysis from that point down.
Compression Fractures and Other Minor Breaks
In general, most people with a broken vertebra report severe pain around the fracture. He or she may not have any other symptoms if their spinal column remains aligned and swelling has not compromised the nerves. Some with a compression fracture of a vertebra may put off seeing a doctor or believe their pain will go away with rest. This is not a good idea.
Fractured Vertebrae with Spinal Cord Involvement
When the broken vertebra puts pressure on the spinal cord and nearby nerves, or if the vertebra dislocates, it is an emergency medical situation. The patient likely reports numbness, diminished strength, or absent reflexes. Loss of bladder and bowel control is another indicator that the injury has compromised the spinal cord.
Rehabilitation and Recovery After a Broken Vertebrae Injury
Following surgery or other initial treatment, many patients with broken vertebrae will need to wear an immobilizing brace for several months. For minor fractures, several weeks of physical therapy may be enough to rebuild strength and recover from the injury. The doctor could release the patient to resume normal activities as soon as X-rays show the fracture healed.
For more serious injuries that involve nerve damage or paralysis, inpatient rehabilitation followed by outpatient therapies may be necessary. It may take several months before patients rebuild strength and relearn skills — or learn to live with new impairments — or in some cases, patients could have years of recovery ahead. In the most serious cases, patients could suffer from paraplegia or quadriplegia and require around-the-clock care for the rest of their life.
Pursuing Damages After a Broken Vertebrae Injury
If you or a loved one suffered broken vertebrae in a car accident, personal injury accident, slip and fall, premises liability accident, or another type of accident, you may be eligible to pursue compensation for your medical care, lost wages, pain and suffering, and more.
The legal team from Newsome Melton is standing by to review your case and fight for the damages you deserve. We can negotiate an out-of-court settlement, or we can take your case to court. Call us today at 1-866-611-BASC to learn more.