Vertebroplasty is a minimally invasive procedure administered to treat vertebral compression fractures with an injection of bone cement directly into the injured tissue. Compression fractures commonly occur as a result of osteoporosis, spinal tumors or injury, and can cause severe pain and limited mobility. They can also lead to abnormal spine curvature and increase a patient’s risk for serious spinal complications. When deemed a viable alternative to spinal surgery, a vertebroplasty presents many advantages. Unlike more invasive procedures, a vertebroplasty requires almost no recovery period and results in almost no scarring or bleeding and very little discomfort. In addition, a vertebroplasty can be a method of prevention as well as treatment, since the bone is very unlikely to refracture in the area in which it has been cemented.
In many cases, vertebral fractures can be treated through conservative methods such as bed rest, a back brace or pain medication. Like fractures in other areas of the body, these fractures can heal on their own. Patients with osteoporosis or whose fractures have caused severe, long-term pain, however, may benefit from a minimally invasive procedure such as vertebroplasty to relieve symptoms. This procedure is also recommended for patients who are too weak to undergo spinal surgery, or have a malignant tumor within the spine that has caused vertebral damage.
Because a vertebroplasty is most effective when performed on fractures that are less than 6 months old, X-rays of the spine will be taken prior to the procedure to determine not only the specific location of the fracture and its severity, but also how long ago it occurred.
The Vertebroplasty Procedure
During the vertebroplasty procedure, bone cement solution is injected into the targeted area of the spine to repair the fracture and stabilize the spine. X-rays are used to make sure that the injection site is pinpointed precisely. A vertebroplasty is performed with the patient under sedation in an outpatient setting. A local anesthetic is used to keep the patient pain-free. After the injection, the patient is required to lie still while the cement hardens, usually for a period of about 2 hours. In most cases, patients will be able to return home soon afterwards. A variation on the vertebroplasty procedure is a kyphoplasty in which a balloon is inserted into the fractured bone to restore it to its original shape before the cement in administered.
Recovery from Vertebroplasty
After the vertebroplasty procedure, most patients experience immediate pain relief and, after a day of rest, are typically able to return to normal activities. Others may notice a more gradual reduction in pain, and may experience soreness or pain at the injection site that can last up to 2 weeks. Ice packs and over-the-counter pain medications are usually all that is required for relief of these symptoms. Patients can return home the same day, but should rest and increase activity levels gradually. Heavy lifting and other strenuous activities should be avoided for at least six weeks after treatment.
Most patients experience a significant increase in functioning after a vertebroplasty and there is not usually a need for physical therapy or rehabilitation. As an added bonus, regained mobility and increased activity lead to improved health, helping the patient to counter the effects of osteoporosis and to reduce the risk of future complications.
Risks of Vertebroplasty
Vertebroplasty is considered a safe procedure with only a minimal risk of complications. As with any type of medical procedure, there are risks of infection, bleeding, increased back pain, numbness and tingling. There is also a risk that some of the cement may leak out of the vertebral body, although this is not usually a major problem.