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Spinal fractures are different than a broken arm or leg. 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. Injuries can range from relatively mild ligament and muscle strains, to fractures and dislocations of the bony vertebrae, to debilitating spinal cord damage. Depending on how severe your injury is, you may experience pain, difficulty walking, or be unable to move your arms or legs (paralysis). Many fractures heal with conservative treatment; however severe fractures may require surgery to realign the bones.

Spinal column and spinal cord

To understand spinal fractures, it is helpful to understand how your spine works. Your spine is made of 33 bones called vertebrae that provide the main support for your body, allowing you to stand upright, bend, and twist. In the middle of each vertebra is a hollow space called the spinal canal, which provides a protective space for the spinal cord. The spinal cord serves as an information super-highway, relaying messages between the brain and the body. Spinal nerves branch off the spinal cord, pass between the vertebrae, to innervate all parts of your body.

There are numerous classifications for fractures. In general, spine fractures fall into three categories:

Fractures: when more pressure is put on a bone than it can stand, it will break. The most common type of spine fracture is a vertebral body compression fracture. Sudden downward force shatters and collapses the body of the vertebrae. If the force is great enough, it may send bone fragments into the spinal canal, called a burst fracture.

People affected by osteoporosis, tumors, and certain forms of cancer that weaken bone are prone to vertebral compression fractures (VCF). The fracture appears as a wedge-shaped collapse of the vertebra. Multiple VCFs can cause a forward hunch of the spine called kyphosis.

Dislocations: when the ligaments and/or discs connecting two vertebrae together are stretched or torn, the bones may come out of alignment . For example, when the rapid forward motion of the upper body against a seat belt pulls apart the vertebra and stretches the ligaments. A dislocated vertebra can cause instability and spinal cord compression. They usually require stabilization surgery or a brace.

Fracture-dislocations: occur when bone is broken and the ligaments are torn. These fractures are usually unstable, tend to be very debilitating, and are often surgically repaired.