By: Sydonya Barker for Back1
What do surgery, pain medication, and cement have in common? All three can be used to treat vertebral fractures. But cement, yes—the same kind used to fix cracks in sidewalks, is the only option that immediately eliminates pain.
Vertebroplasty, a procedure pioneered 20 years ago in France, may be a lifesaver to the 700,000 Americans who suffer from vertebral fractures each year. Such injuries to the spinal bone are generally a result of osteoporosis – a condition most common in older women that causes bones to weaken and collapse over time.
For some patients, these fractured vertebrae heal on their own, but for the vast majority, the bones continue to crush under their weight causing severe discomfort and excruciating pain.
Patients have few treatment options for fractured vertebrae. Most simply lie in bed for months at a time. Others rely on pain medication that often cause problematic side effects, and some resort to surgery, an option with low success rates.
“Vertebroplasty is fast becoming the standard of care for treatment of the pain associated with vertebral compression fractures," says Dr. Mary E. Jensen, Associate Professor of Radiology and Neurosurgery at the University of Virginia. Introduced in the United States since 1994, vertebroplasty is possibly the nonsurgical therapy of choice for patients with fractured spine bones.
The outpatient procedure performed by an interventional radiologist and lasting between one to two hours, is usually performed in the morning. Using X-ray imaging, the radiologist inserts a needle about the size of a cocktail straw through the skin at the back. The radiologist then injects about one teaspoonful of medical-grade cement into the vertebral fracture. The cement, having a toothpaste-like consistency, hardens within 15 minutes. During the entire procedure, the patient is conscious but sedated.
Vertebroplasty offers a myriad of benefits to the patients who have undergone the procedure. Besides stabilizing the bone fracture which prevents further collapse, 75 to 90 percent of treated people can expect total elimination of pain, or at least a significant reduction. Although some patients experience immediate pain relief, most long-term benefits occur within 48 hours after the procedure has been completed.
Despite the success rate of vertebroplasty, results will not be the same for all patients. Possible risks include a slight chance that a small amount of the cement will leak outside of the vertebrae; a tingling sensation; and increased back pain. As always, each patient’s risk depends on individual circumstances. However, the procedure is usually safe and effective – more than 98% of the time, there are no complications.
Currently, researchers are trying to improve the procedure to make it more appealing and effective for patients. For one, they are trying to develop cements that can convert to bone. They are also working on using the treatment as a preventive measure to avoid vertebral fractures in the first place.