Thoracolumbar Fracture

What is a thoracolumbar fracture?

A thoracolumbar fracture is a break in one or more of your thoracic and lumbar vertebrae. The vertebrae are the bones that make up your spine. The thoracic vertebrae are the 12 bones between your neck and lower back. They are connected to your ribs and help the ribs move when you breathe. The lumbar vertebrae are the 5 bones between your chest and hips.

What causes a thoracolumbar fracture?

Thoracolumbar fractures are usually caused by severe injury to the spine. When the spine is damaged, there may also be damage to the spinal cord. A thoracolumbar fracture may be caused by a motor vehicle accident or a fall from a great height. It may also occur in a newborn during a difficult delivery. Older people with osteoporosis (brittle bones) may have thoracolumbar fractures after low-impact injuries.

What are the signs and symptoms of a thoracolumbar fracture?

  • Pain that increases during movement

  • Limited movement of your back

  • Abnormal curve of the spine

  • Bruising and swelling on your back

  • Numbness, weakness, or paralysis of your legs

How is a thoracolumbar fracture diagnosed?

  • An x-ray, CT scan, or MRI will be done to check for broken bones or other problems. You may be given contrast dye to help the bones show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.

  • A bone scan is a test done to show areas where your bone is diseased or damaged. You will get a radioactive liquid, called a tracer, through a vein in your arm. The tracer collects in your bones, and pictures will then be taken.

How is a thoracolumbar fracture treated?

Treatment will depend on which bones were damaged and the kind of fracture you have. Thoracolumbar fractures that are mild may be treated with bed rest. For support, you may need to wear a back brace or have a cast made for your back. Sometimes a corset (binder) may be used to support a weak spine. To decrease the load on a broken spine, you may need to use a walker. A severe thoracolumbar fracture may require surgery to return the bones to their normal position.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have pain or swelling on your back that is worse or does not go away.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You feel lightheaded, short of breath, and have chest pain.

  • You cough up blood.

  • Your arm or leg feels warm, tender, and painful. It may look swollen and red.

  • You have trouble moving your legs.

  • Your legs feel numb or you cannot move them.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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