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Back Injuries Can Keep Athletes on the Bench

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Back injuries are common in sports. Take German Grand Prix driver Pascal Wehrlein, who suffered a fractured vertebra during a crash in Monaco this May. Slipped disks, strains and sprains can leave players on the bench, but another common back injury for athletes is spinal compression fractures.

What Are Spinal Compression Fractures? 

Compression fractures are fractures that occur when there is a compression force on the vertebrae of the back. When a compression fracture occurs, the affected vertebrae collapse due to the force exerted on them. In most compression fractures, the front part of the bone collapses, leaving the vertebrae a wedge shape.

 

For many athletes, compression fractures happen because of a fall in which the athlete lands on their buttocks or feet. In some cases, repetitive actions like jumping can also cause compression fractures to develop over time.

"There may not be an isolated incident that causes a vertebra or multiple vertebrae to break, but they can fracture as a result of many instances that have occurred over a long period of time," Dr. Michael Budler, M.D., said.

Budler is an interventional radiologist in Grand Island, Nebraska, who treats spinal compression fracture patients.

Causes of Spinal Compression Fractures

Athletes are just one group impacted by spinal compression fractures. Patients with weakened bones from osteoporosis and cancer are also at risk of developing spinal compression fractures. Osteoporosis is a bone disease in which the bones become brittle due to a loss of calcium. Some forms of cancer, like multiple myeloma, cause bones to weaken. 

Patients with weak bones are at risk of developing spinal fractures from falls or even while walking or going up or down stairs. Spinal compression fractures may also develop as a result of sitting for long periods.

"Sitting actually exerts more force on the spine than standing, and that force over time will cause spinal compression fractures in patients with weakened bones," Budler said.

Concerns About Spinal Compression Fractures

Spinal compression fractures can be extremely painful. Pain may be localized to the injury site or also spread to the buttocks, hips and thighs. Many spinal compression fracture patients have pain with movement. Spinal compression fractures can also cause tingling, numbness or weakness.

Patients with multiple compression fractures may be left with a spinal curvature or hunchback or experience shortened height.

Some spinal compression fracture patients lose bowel and bladder control if their fracture is putting pressure on the spinal cord.

Kyphoplasty for Spinal Compression Fractures

Common treatments for spinal compression fractures includes rest, pain relievers and back support braces. Pain and other symptoms of spinal compression fractures worsen over time, which often leads patients to seek surgical options. For most patients, surgery means downtime during healing.

Budler treats spinal compression fracture patients through kyphoplasty. Kyphoplasty is a procedure in which a small catheter is inserted into the fractured vertebra, and a small balloon is pushed through it. The balloon is inflated slowly, and then removed, leaving a cavity. Budler fills this cavity with bone cement and a special kind of resin, known as polymethylmethacrylate, also called Activos10, which allows for better bone growth into the cement. This combination provides strength and stability to the newly repaired bone.

After the procedure, most patients report an immediate reduction in pain or in just a few days. Patients find decreased pain when walking and doing other normal activities. Strenuous activity and heavy lifting should be avoided for six weeks.

 

Sources:

Sportsmole. "Pascal Werhlein:"No back problems after Monaco." Sportsmole. 2 June 2017.

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