A burst fracture is a fracture in which a vertebra subjected to compression is crushed. It could be considered an offshoot of a compression fracture, in which one side of the vertebra is compressed, except that with a burst fracture, all sides are compressed and the bone may splay out in multiple directions. This type of fracture can be very dangerous for the patient, and may have serious long-term implications.
The most common causes of burst fractures are falls from height and car accidents. In both cases, the spine can be subjected to tremendous compressive forces, and while it is designed to deal with compression, the pressure can be so high that one or more vertebrae are fractured. This usually causes extreme pain for the patient in the area of the fracture, and can be associated with immediate paralysis or loss of feeling below the level of the fracture.
There are several concerns with a burst fracture. The first is that there may be injury to the spinal cord or nerves. The vertebrae are designed in part to protect the spinal cord, and when one is fractured, it can expose the cord to the risk of damage. This can lead to a variety of medical issues including paralysis, muscle weakness, chronic pain, and nervous twitches. The second issue is that the stability of the spine is greatly compromised, which can put the patient at risk.
If someone is suspected to have a burst fracture, she or he should be kept totally flat and jostled as little as possible until the fracture can be evaluated. People who have fallen or been involved in car accidents may be subjected to “spinal protocols” in which they are treated as though they have spinal fractures until it can be proven otherwise. This is designed to protect the spine in the event of a fracture.
Using x-rays, a spine specialist can diagnose a burst fracture and develop a treatment plan. Sometimes the patient can be braced during healing and this is sufficient. In other cases, patients require surgery, although a doctor may be forced to wait until a patient is stable before performing the surgery. There are a number of surgical options for treatment including fusion, in which the neighboring vertebrae are fused together to stabilize the spine.
Recovery from a burst fracture takes time, and may require physical therapy and other measures. In the case of patients who have incurred damage to the spinal cord, recovery can also include occupational therapy.