What Is a Spinal Fracture?


A spinal fracture, also known as a vertebral fracture or a broken back, is a fracture in any of the 33 vertebrae that make up the spinal column. In some cases, the spinal cord may be compressed or otherwise compromised. Spinal fractures are divided into 3 patterns: flexion, extension and rotation. Flexion pattern spinal fractures impede the spine from bending forward. Extension pattern spinal fractures occur due to forced, abnormal extension or pulling of the bones in the spine. Rotation pattern spinal fractures include transverse process fractures and fracture-dislocations.


Symptoms of a spinal fracture include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Sudden back pain
  • Back pain that worsens with movement, standing or walking
  • Reduction of pain when lying down
  • Limited spinal mobility
  • Loss of height
  • Deformity of the spine
  • Numbness in extremities
  • Changes in reflexes
  • Loss of muscle strength
  • Bowel and bladder incontinence

In some cases, no symptoms are experienced.


Spinal fractures occur when an external force is applied to the spine, and the force exceeds the ability of the bone (vertebra) to withstand it. The type of spinal fracture depends on what part of a vertebra is affected. Typical causes of spinal fractures include falls, car accidents or other trauma, or they can occur as a result of vertebral degeneration from health conditions such as osteoporosis, spinal tumors, cancer, infection, etc.

Risk factors

Factors that increase the risk of experiencing a spinal fracture include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Female
  • Age 50 or older
  • Osteoporosis
  • Malnutrition
  • Obesity
  • Weakened immune system
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