Healing a Fractured Vertebrae in the Spine

I have had osteoporosis for a number of decades already. My normal lifestyle is fairly tame, so it has not been a huge problem for me. But there have been several instances of a fractured vertebrae in my spine. Each time it came as a result of unusual physical activity. I'm getting to know the healing routine by now. Especially, as I've had another incident in April, and am coming through the healing process again.

My first experience was in 2007 after my Dad died. I was his live-in caregiver and had phoned all the relatives the same evening that he died. Most of them would have to come in from a distance, but my brother Tom lived in Saskatoon, just half an hour's drive, so the next day I went to pick him up - and his wheelchair - and I took him along as I went to make the funeral arrangements. Of course, each time we stopped at the funeral home, the flower shop, the bakery, and the Trust company where Dad's will was held, I took Tom's wheelchair out the the trunk, put it by the passenger door, and we went in together. When we came out I let him transfer into the car, and I put his wheelchair into the trunk of the car again. By the end of the afternoon, when we got back to Dad's house, I noticed that my lower back really hurt. As I unloaded his wheelchair again, I said to myself, "And how many times have I done this today? About 12, right? It really takes some Ommph to get this chair in and out of the trunk of the car."

After all the relatives left my back pain was still there, so I went to my chiropractor, who had helped me before when I'd cracked a couple of ribs, simply from rolling over in my sleep. He sent me for an x-ray and then phoned the next day to say I had a cracked T6 vertebrae. I asked what to do about that; he answered, "Nothing. Wait 8 weeks and it will heal itself."

He was right, but I was the one stuck with cleaning up Dad's stuff for an auction sale, and getting the house sold. I did most of that work despite the pain in my back. Painkillers helped a bit, but it was just dogged perseverance that brought me through. Plus the grace of God.

I had a couple of more instances, albeit, more minor, over the next 5 - 10 years. Though I moved into the city where Tom lived, I did my best to beg off anytime he wanted me to take him somewhere. Instead, when there was a holiday, I made a meal and took it to his apartment.

Now, on April 12th, 2019, it was Tom that passed away. I took along a friend when I went to return his wheelchair to the Abilities Society that had provided it. I didn't want to risk cracking my back again!

However, as Executor of his Will, it fell to me to clean out his apartment. He had lived there for 18 years and collected a lot of stuff, including a huge collection of diecast models, which Tom wanted me to sell so his estranged daughters would get an inheritance. Well, I wanted to do my best to comply, but packing up 80 boxes of those models and taking them into a storage unit was a huge job. Huge! Plus the rest of his stuff had to be arranged for an in-apartment estate/garage sale - which I announced and advertised for 3 consecutive days.

I'd picked up a severe cough which threw my body back and forth violently with each whopping coughing fit. That, and lifting and carrying those boxes, was what cracked my ol' T6 vertebrae again. Fortunately, my other brother, Ernie, arrived that last week and helped as all I could do was sit in the rocker and supervise. (My chiropractor said I had sprained my back really BAD, and cracked some ribs too, but he didn't call for x-rays). Anyway, I managed to grit my teeth and live through that week, and experienced many kindnesses from others in that apartment building as they came to bring us meals, and hot gel packs and a heating pad for my back.

Since then I've spent 4-6 weeks in recovery mode at home, and am glad to say the pain has let up considerably. The stronger painkiller my doctor prescribed helped too.

Now I am considering how to advise if this happens to you, and to answer some basic questions that may be on your mind.

A fracture of the thoracic or lumbar spine will cause you moderate to severe back pain that is worsened with movement. However, if your spinal cord is involved, you may experience bowel/bladder dysfunction along with numbness, tingling, or weakness in the limbs. (Happily, that has not been my case - so far.)

Recovery time from a fractured vertebrae is generally 8 to 10 weeks. That's if you rest, perhaps wear a brace, and take pain medications. However, recovery can take much longer if surgery was done. Fractures due to osteoporosis often become less painful with rest and pain medications.

How serious is this?
A fracture or dislocation of a vertebra can cause bone fragments to pinch and damage the spinal nerves or spinal cord. Most spinal fractures occur from car accidents, falls, gunshot, or sports. Most fractures heal with conservative treatment; however, if truly severe, your fracture may require surgery to realign the bones.

Could your fractured vertebrae heal on its own?
Yes, ordinary fractures usually heal on their own and the pain goes away. However, the pain can persist if your bone got crushed, and does not heal adequately. In severe cases of osteoporosis, actions as simple as bending forward can be enough to cause a "crush fracture," or spinal compression fracture.

How do you sleep with a fractured vertebrae?
I try to lie still on a heating pad (which shuts off every 2 hours), to keep the muscles relaxed. Some recommend sleeping on your back with a pillow under your knees. This will decrease pressure on your back. You may also sleep on your side with 1 or both of your knees bent and a pillow between them. (I find that comfortable for a little while, but then wake up with lopsided pain on one side more than the other). It may also be helpful to sleep on your stomach with a pillow under you at waist level. Because of the curvature of my spine, that does not work for me.

In severe cases of osteoporosis, actions as simple as bending forward can be enough to cause a "crush fracture", or spinal compression fracture. This type of vertebral fracture causes loss of height and a humped back, especially in elderly women. (Oh yes! I was 5 ft 7 in. tall when I finished high school; now I am a mere 4 ft. 11 in. I've lost 7.5 inches in height!)

How can you tell if you have a broken back?
Severe pain at the site of the fracture is the first clue. If back pain is made worse when you move, that's also a sign that a vertebra may have been broken. If, however, the broken bone compresses the spinal cord's other nerves, there may be numbness as well as pain. A doctor will try to confirm with x-rays.

Treatments for a fractured vertebrae?
Pain from a spinal compression fracture allowed to heal naturally can last as long as three months. But the pain usually improves significantly in a matter of days or weeks. Pain management may include analgesic pain medicines, bed rest, back bracing, and physical activity.

I found that my tube of Aloe Heat Lotion was the most comforting for my fracture spots and some muscles that tended to seize up in sympathy pain. This aloe vera cream has a small amount of cayenne pepper mixed in. That brings our own blood to the surface in the pain area; our blood warms and relaxes our nerves and muscles at that pain site, and in moments we relax as the pain evaporates. I found that Aloe Heat Lotion was much more comforting and did now zonk me out for a long nap like the prescription painkillers did. Although, when pain eases up we tend to doze off more easily. I did feel however, that the strong prescription painkillers made my mind groggy, and if I tried to get up out of my recliner I would stumble and have to reach out for the furniture. Aloe Heat lotion did not affect me that way. (If you wish to learn more about it see my page: Aloe Heat Lotion).

Does walking help?
For many people, it's best to avoid physical therapy soon after a spine compression fracture to decrease stress on the fractured bone. Later on, physical therapy is helpful for strengthening the muscles that support the vertebrae. Then, short walks and gentle exercises are more helpful.

Is there danger of being paralyzed?
A person can "break their back or neck" yet not sustain a spinal cord injury, if only the bones around the spinal cord (the vertebrae) are damaged and the spinal cord is not affected. In these situations, the individual may not experience paralysis after the bones are stabilized.