Spinal fracture: causes, prevention and treatments

Written by: Mr Caspar Aylott
Edited by: Cameron Gibson-Watt

What exactly is a spinal fracture? A spinal fracture refers simply to a ‘broken bone’ in the back. We often say that someone has ‘broken their back’ when we describe someone who has a spinal fracture following a traumatic accident.


There are 33 bones in our spine known as vertebrae that provide support to our bodies, allowing us to hold ourselves up, twist and bend over. Fracturing one or more of these bones can be demobilising and requires a lot of rest and specialist treatment - other times it’s not that serious.


In this article, leading spinal surgeon, Mr Caspar Aylott, discusses the various causes of a spine fracture, how you can prevent it from happening and what the main forms of treatment are.



What are the types of spinal fractures?

There are many different types of spinal fractures and they all produce back pain.


Fractures may involve an important weight-bearing section of the spine or part of the bone which has muscles or ligaments attached.


Serious fractures are usually caused by a high-energy injury such as a road traffic accident, falling from a horse or height, extreme sports, etc. Specialists assess fractures to determine if they are stable or unstable. Unstable fractures may result in damage to the nerves or spinal cord leading to paralysis or even death.


What can cause a spinal fracture?

There are typically four main reasons for having a spine fracture:


  • Insufficiency fractures - weak bones in the elderly. No trauma.
  • Traumatic fractures - Strong bones in young. Violent trauma.
  • Stress fractures - Strong bones in adolescence. Repetitive minor trauma.
  • Pathological fractures - Weakened bone by cancer. No trauma.


How can you prevent a spinal fracture?

Avoid accidents and extreme sports! BUT you can’t go through life ‘wrapped in cotton wool’ and accidents do happen!


The most common type of spinal fractures are not actually related to accidents but a weakness of the bones as we get older. This ‘thinning’ of the bones may be referred to as osteoporosis and is also the cause of wrist and hip fractures in the elderly.


Osteoporosis is more common in females following early menopause, but family history, long term steroids, etc. are important and we must not forget men can also suffer from this condition too. Therefore, diagnosing osteoporosis early, before fractures happen, is really important. A good diet, regular exercise and medical treatments can really help to reduce fractures.


How do you treat spinal fractures?

Treatment depends on the type of fracture.


  • Unstable fractures can move out of place (displace) when we stand, therefore most unstable spine fractures need surgery with strong metal screws and rods to hold the spine together allowing bone healing. Sometimes a patient may be confined to flat bed rest for several months allowing the fracture to heal or ‘set’. A neck or back brace may also be worn for three months.
  • Insufficiency fractures caused by osteoporosis are normally stable. Osteoporotic bone breaks more easily but heals normally. Fractures tend to heal over three months or longer with plenty of reclined rest. Cement can also be injected into insufficiency fractures to quickly improve pain and walking and help restore the normal shape of the bone. This is called balloon kyphoplasty.
  • Stress fractures are a very specific type of fracture usually found in the lower back. They usually produce back pain in sporty teenagers, classically dancers, cricket bowlers, gymnasts, etc Treatment usually requires several months of rest to give the fractured bone a chance to heal.
Can you spot the stress fracture at the bottom level of the spine?


  • Pathological fractures are usually caused by cancer (myeloma, breast, lung, prostate, kidney cancer, etc.) spreading into the spine and weakening the bone. Treatment usually involves drugs and/or radiotherapy to kill the cancer. Surgery may also be necessary if the spine fracture is unstable.



It is important to remember that a simple X-ray taken by a doctor does not necessarily exclude a spine fracture. More advanced imaging may be necessary.


We can investigate your back pain properly and without delay and provide you with both an accurate diagnosis and the correct advice and treatment.


Mr Caspar Aylott is an expert consultant spinal surgeon practising at The London Spine Unit and Cheltenham Spine Clinic. To book a face-to-face appointment with him, or e-Consultation if you are unable to travel, visit his Top Doctors profile and check his availability.

By Mr Caspar Aylott
Orthopaedic surgery

Mr Caspar Aylott is an internationally-trained consultant spinal surgeon practising at The UK Spine Centre and Cheltenham Spine Clinic. His areas of expertise lie in the conservative and surgical management of back problems, including disc herniation, degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, neck and back pain, sciatica and osteoporotic spine fractures. He also specialises in rehabilitation, minimal access surgery, injections, fusion, non-fusion motion-preserving techniques, and balloon kyphoplasty for spinal fractures.

Mr Aylott completed his specialist fellowship training in Nottingham, Bristol and Auckland. He is uniquely dual-qualified in the UK with a degree in both mechanical and materials engineering from Nottingham University and as a Doctor from Leicester Medical School. He also has a Doctorate in Spine. He has published over thirty medical publications and lectures regularly in Europe and Asia on subjects including minimally invasive surgery and spinal biomechanics. His qualifications and experience have allowed him to become a European faculty trainer for surgeons in numerous minimally invasive techniques including dynamic stabilisation and balloon kyphoplasty.

As well as practising at The UK Spine Centre, Mr Aylott also runs the Cheltenham Spine Clinic. He passionately believes in the importance of making an accurate diagnosis and communicating this openly and clearly to his patients, enabling a personalised and sensible treatment plan to be outlined.

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