What is a Broken Back

By Jared Ernest, MPT

A broken back can be caused by different factors.

Image of Possible Pain from a Broken Back

What is a Broken Back?

People often ask “What is a broken back”? Basically a broken back is a laymen’s term for a spinal fracture. A spinal fracture is a break in the bones of the spine that are called vertebrae. Vertebrae are bones that are stacked on each other and make up your spinal column. This stack of vertebrae starts at your neck and runs to your tail bone to form the structure of your spine.

What are the common causes?

  • Falls (#1 cause).
  • Traumatic injury/car accident.
  • Osteoporosis.
  • Spinal Tumors.

What are some other factors that are risks for spinal fractures?

  • Bacterial/fungal infections.
  • Malnutrition.
  • Weakened immune system.
  • Cancer.
  • Obesity.

What should I feel if I think I have a broken back?

  • Intense pain at the place of your spine where the fracture is at. The pain would be very isolated at about the size of your thumb.
  • Increased pain when you move to include bending and twisting your spine.
  • Numbness, deceased reflexes and weakness may be present as the nerve may also be injured at the fracture area.

What are the types?

Compression fractures

  • Common with osteoporosis and bone cancer
  • Occurs with a sudden force with increased pressure that overstresses the bone.

Wedge Fracture

  • Usually occurs in front of vertebrae that collapses under pressure and takes on shape of a wedge.

Burst Fracture

  • Caused by severe trauma such as car accident
  • Vertebrae is crushed by extreme force
  • Vertebrae fractures in multiple places.
  • Can lead to spinal cord injury secondary to bone fragments.

Flexion/distraction Fracture

  • Usually result of car accident
  • Sudden, high intensity forward movement with increased stress causing fracture.


  • Combination of fracture and the bones of the spine move significantly.
  • Makes the spine very unstable.

Stable Fracture

  • No deformity or nerve problems
  • Able to carry weight load of spine w/o issue.

Unstable Fracture

  • May lead to spinal deformity and increased chance of getting worse.
  • Difficult to carry weight load of spine.

How is a broken back confirmed?

First a complete history is taken to identify possible injury or factors that may have lead to broken back.
X-ray is still the primary method to see if a fracture exists. Also CT scan and MRI may be performed
Physical exam to include palpation of spine. Also tests to determine any spinal cord or nerve damage such as reflexes and muscle testing.

Do I need surgery to fix a broken back?

In some cases surgery may be required to allow healing of the fractured area. Depending on the type of fracture will dictate what type of procedure that may be performed.

Issues with compression fractures are usually addressed with the following:


  • Catheter is guided to fracture site and special bone cement is injected into the fracture site.


  • A small incision made at fracture site and a balloon is placed and inflated to create a space. Next bone cement is used to fill in this space and even out the height of the spine.

Procedures for more involved broken back fractures:


  • Surgical removal of all or part of the vertebrae. Next the removed bone is replaced with plates or screws.

Spinal fusion

  • Plates and screws are used to join two or more spinal bones into one. Usually flexibility and ROM are reduced after this procedure.

Can Physical Therapy help?

Regardless if you have surgery or not physical therapy is imperative for your recovery from a broken back. Therapy with help to rebuild the muscles that will support and stabilize your spine and also help to restore the maximal mobility at the spine. Most important the correct movement and posture education will be addressed to limit negative force on the spine.

How long is Recovery?

In most cases not requiring a surgical intervention the time frame for recovery is about 8-10 weeks. This time frame usually involves rest, use of brace and pain medication. Surgical intervention s can vary for recovery times but may be up to 12 to 14 months to reach your maximal potential.

Where is Telemedicine frequently used?

All JOI Physicians, Physical Therapists and Occupational Therapists now offer Telemedicine services for virtual visits from the convenience of your home. If you feel that it is best to stay in your own home during this time, we can still provide orthopaedic Telehealth services for you. Through the download of the free Zoom app on the your phone, tablet or laptop. Our physicians and Telehealth for Physical Therapy can evaluate you and provide the care you need.

JOI Fracture and Injury Care

JOI Physicians are currently offering ASAP fracture and injury care. This is a new option for patients who would like to avoid the emergency room if they have suffered a fracture or soft tissue injury. To learn more about this service, read this article about fracture and injury care. Make an appointment by calling (904)JOI-2000.

If you think you may be suffering from a broken back or another back issue, JOI has a team of experienced back and neck specialists. To make an appointment call JOI-2000 or schedule online by clicking the button below.

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By: Jared Ernest, MPT

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