A spinal compression fracture is a very painful thing.
Some elderly patients who have osteoporosis can end up crushing their vertebrae with only minimal trauma, such as a slight fall or even a sneeze. Until recently, the usual treatment of compression fractures has been to give a patient plenty of pain medicine, sometimes a brace, and then have him or her wait for it to heal. This process could take anywhere from six weeks to six months or longer.
Over the past few years, however, a new treatment for compression fractures has been developed, and it is now starting to find widespread acceptance. It is a procedure that is done in about an hour under local anesthesia. In some cases can cure the pain of the fracture almost as soon as the patient gets off the table. It is called percutaneous cement vertebroplasty.
The procedure is done by having a patient lie prone on a table. An x-ray machine is used to locate the crushed vertebra that is causing the pain, and then one or two needles are inserted into the vertebra using only local anesthesia to numb the path of the needle. A special type of bone cement is then injected through the needle into the vertebra. When the cement hardens (in about 15 minutes), it stabilizes the fracture and, in most cases, the pain is gone immediately. The patient can then go home after about an hour or two, without a hospital stay. There is no significant recovery period other than a minor soreness around the needle sites. As with any procedure, there is not a 100% success rate, and there are risks, but fortunately they are very uncommon.
Not everybody does well with this procedure: it is not recommended for younger patients with traumatic fractures, and it won’t help elderly patients with more than two fractures at a time. However, for those that are candidates, this can be a blessed alternative to weeks of bed-rest and narcotics.