Trauma to the Spine

Emergency responder from Clinica Las Condes

What is Trauma to the Spine

There are many possible types of injuries or trauma to the spine. Most commonly injuries occur in men between 16 and 24 years old. The most common accident involves motor vehicle collisions, followed by falls, penetrating injuries and finally sports injuries. Injuries can be very minor to life threatening.

On this page we will discuss three areas relating to injuries or trauma to the spine.


Five Sections of the Spine


The cervical spine is the portion of your spine that begins at your skull. There are seven vertebrae, often called C-1 to C-7. The cervical spine protects your brain stem and the beginning of the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a very delicate bundle of nerves that controls the most basic systems in your body. When the spinal cord suffers a serious injury, a person may permanently lose use of their upper or lower body.

Injuries to the soft tissue and connecting tissue around the cervical spine will also cause pain and often temporary impairment of range of motion. Whiplash which is often caused in auto accidents is the most common of soft tissue injuries.

Compression of the cervical spine can cause injury and pain. This type of injury can put pressure on nerves when vertebrae or disc press against a nerve. Often non-surgical treatment can cure soft tissue trauma around the cervical spine.

If you feel any sharp or long-lasting pain in your neck please see one of our spine experts who can help you determine the cause of your condition.

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The cervical spine is connected to the thoracic spine. There are 12 vertebrae in the thoracic spine. This is the section of your upper back. Injuries, especially involving serious force can be devastating especially since the spinal cord exits several places through the thoracic spine. Injury to the spinal cord is very serious.

Like the cervical spine, the thoracic spine is subject to less serious injury and trauma also so it is important to see one of our spinal surgeons if you have pain and discomfort in your upper back.

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Your lumbar spine runs through your lower back. There are four (4) lumbar vertebrae.

Most commonly, patients who develop a lumbar strain or sprain are doing an activity that places their back at risk. This may be a sudden forceful movement, lifting a heavy object, or twisting the back in an unusual manner. Most lumbar muscle strains and sprains cause symptoms isolated to the low back, usually they do not cause problems in the legs like some other spine conditions. The most common symptoms of a lumbar strain or sprain are: pain around the low back and upper buttocks, low back muscle spasms, pain associated with activities, and generally relieved with rest.

Lumbar pain that lasts more than a few days or which causes numbness or sharp pain should be evaluated by one of our expert staff.

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The Sacrum has five vertebrae which are all fused in one. A healthy sacral region is rarely fractured except in instances of serious injury, such as a fall or trauma to the area. However, patients with osteoporosis or rheumatoid arthritis are inclined to develop stress fractures and fatigue fractures in the sacrum.

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Your tail bone is called the coccyx.

When sitting, the coccyx shifts forward and acts as a shock absorber. However, falling on the tailbone or events such as childbirth can lead to coccygeal pain, known as coccydynia. In most cases, the pain is caused by an unstable coccyx, which results in chronic inflammation of the sacro-coccygeal joint.

Coccydynia (tailbone pain) can also be attributed to a malformed or dislocated coccyx and the growth of bony spurs on the coccyx. Women are more likely to experience coccydynia, since the coccyx is rotated and faces backward in women, which makes it more susceptible to trauma.

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Types of Spine FracturesX-ray of spine for evaluation

Even minor falls or trauma can sometimes produce a spine fracture. Many of these injuries will never require surgery, but major fractures can result in serious long-term problems unless treated promptly and properly. Spine fractures range from painful compression fractures, often seen after minor trauma in osteoporotic patients, to more severe injuries such as burst fractures and fracture-dislocations which occur following auto accidents or falls from height. These severe injuries frequently result in spinal instability, with a high risk of spinal cord injury and pain.

Osteoporosis or softening of the bones, can lead to painful vertebral compression fractures. Until recently the only treatment was bracing and narcotic medications which frequently lend to ongoing pain and progressive deformity.

Fortunately modern medicine provides many techniques for repairing and treating fractures of the spine. Our internationally renowned surgeons travel the world learning the latest techniques for treating spinal fractures.

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Simple or Complicated

Spinal fractures can be classified as simple or complicated (minor or major).

A minor fracture means that a part of the posterior (back side) elements of the vertebra has broken—the parts that aren’t as vital to spinal stability. The posterior elements include the spinous process and the facet joints (also called the articular processes). If you fracture this part of the vertebrae, it’s usually not too serious.

A major fracture means that part of the vertebral body, the pedicles, or the lamina has fractured. Fracturing the vertebral body is considered major because it helps carry so much weight and distribute the force of your movements. If it’s broken, you can have serious problems with the vertebrae lining up correctly. Fracturing the pedicles or lamina is dangerous because of the increased possibility of nerve damage. Additionally, the pedicles and lamina provide a lot of necessary support to keep your spine stable. If they fracture, your spine may be unstable.

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Stable or Unstable

Stable and unstable is another basic classification for spinal fractures.

Stable fractures don’t cause spinal deformity or neurologic (nerve) problems. With a stable fracture, the spine can still carry and distribute your weight pretty well (not as well as if there weren’t a fracture, but it’s still able to function with a stable fracture).

Unstable fractures make it difficult for the spine to carry and distribute weight. Unstable fractures have a chance of progressing and causing further damage. They may also cause spinal deformity.

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Dislocations of VertebraeGirls skiing in Chile

Most spinal dislocations are the result of a traffic accident, very hard fall or high-impact injuries. Activities such as soccer, polo and rugby carry a high risk, as do highly technical sports such as gymnastics or skiing.

There is a higher prevalence of spinal dislocation amongst adolescents and young adults due to lifestyle choices such as sports, careless driving and the influence of drink and drugs.

Due to the nature of how spinal dislocations are caused, they usually are accompanied by a fracture.

Some fractures and dislocations of the spine can be serious while others minor. If you have pain for more than a few days or if the pain you experience is either sharp, has a rapid onset, or is the result of significant force, please schedule an appointment with one of our specialists as soon as possible.

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