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Spine Surgery Guide

Burst Fracture

Burst Fracture

The spine is made up of 33 bones, called vertebrae, that protect the spinal cord. Spaces between the vertebrae allow nerves to pass from the spinal cord to various parts of the body.

A compression fracture is a condition in which a vertebra is crushed only in the front part of the spine, causing a wedge shape. If a vertebra is crushed in all directions, the condition is called a burst fracture.

Burst fractures are much more severe than compression fractures. The bones spread out in all directions and may damage the spinal cord. This damage can cause paralysis or injury to the nerves, which control the body's ability to move or feel sensations.
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Signs of a burst fracture include:
  • Moderate to severe back pain made worse by moving
  • Numbness, tingling and weakness
  • Inability to empty the bowel or bladder properly, if the spinal cord is involved

Causes and Risk Factors

Burst fractures are usually the result of a motor vehicle accident or a fall from a great height.
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A doctor generally bases a diagnosis on:
  • A history of how the injury happened
  • A physical exam to check for swelling, bruising or injury to the head, chest, stomach and back and to assess the strength, motion and coordination of arms and legs
  • Testing the tone and sensation of the muscles that allow the movement of solid wastes from the rectum
  • Nerve testing to evaluate movement, the ability to feel sensations and reflex actions
  • X-rays
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)


Treatment depends on how bad the burst fracture is. Options may include either nonsurgical approaches or surgery. If there is pressure on the spinal cord, the nerve roots or both, surgical treatment is usually recommended. The surgeon perform a spinal fusion to stabilize the spine with grafts and other instrumentation, as well as to take the pressure off the vertebra and nerves. This procedure removes any bone material touching the spinal cord or nerve roots.
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This information is not designed to replace a physician's independent judgment about the appropriateness or risks of a procedure for a given patient.
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