Diagnosing a Spinal Compression Fracture

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on February 08, 2020

The back pain may seem like arthritis or the aches and pains of aging. People often think it's a disc problem or muscle strain. Many people don't even get examined because either they -- or their family members -- don't realize what the problem is. But often back pain among older adults is caused by a spinal compression fracture.

Only your doctor can diagnose a spinal compression fracture. To determine what's wrong, your doctor may ask questions such as:

  • How long have you had this back pain?
  • What caused it?
  • What were you doing when it started?
  • Is the pain getting worse or better?

Your doctor may also prescribe tests such as:

  • A spinal X-ray to determine whether a vertebra has collapsed
  • A CT scan to provide detail of the fractured bone and the nerves around it
  • An MRI scan to show greater detail of nerves and nearby discs

A spinal compression fracture may be seen on a bone density exam (DEXA) if an additional test called a vertebral fracture assessment (VFA) is done at the same time.

Also, rarely a bone biopsy may be done in a small percentage of people who have compression fractures to determine if the fracture is caused by cancer.

WebMD Medical Reference



Michael Schaufele, MD, physiatrist and professor of orthopaedics, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta. 

Rex Marco, MD, chief of spine surgery and musculoskeletal oncology, University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston. 

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

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