5 differences between arthritis and vertebral fracture

Arthritis or fracture? Figuring out what back pain means

It’s an unusual person who gets to middle age without a few aches and pains — a little wear and tear is to be expected after a half century or so. But for those at risk of osteoporotic fractures, back pain is particularly worrisome because you can’t really know whether it’s tired muscles, or arthritis, or a vertebral fracture.

Or can you?

Recent research shows that the pain caused by vertebral fractures is different from other causes, such as arthritis of the spine. As a 2016 study published in Osteoporosis International found, vertebral fractures in women produced a number of distinct pain signposts that weren’t present in women who had arthritis of the spinal column.

Recognizing the signs of vertebral fracture vs. arthritis pain

The study looked at 197 British women between the ages of 67 and 84, asking them to report on their experiences of pain (in the back but elsewhere as well) before initiating a spine x-ray to look for vertebral fractures. They found that about a third of the women had vertebral fractures — and the women with fractures had a number of things in common. They were older (average age of 76.9 years versus 71.7 in the women without fractures), were considerably more likely to have had a previous fracture, or a diagnosis of osteoporosis, or both, and had fairly specific attributes to the pain they experienced that differed from the women with arthritis.

Most notably, women with fractures described their pain as recent and brief in duration but “crushing,” whereas women with arthritis said they had intermittent or periodic pain that they were more likely to call “taut” or “sharp.” Radiation of pain to the legs and association with weather changes were common in the women with arthritis but not the women with vertebral fractures. (See table for full comparison.)

Listening to your body

All of this makes sense. Fractures are an acute injury in the bone, which is very different from the kind of slow, gradual, and chronic inflammatory process that is present in arthritis.

What I take away from this study is that our body will tell us what we need to know — if we listen carefully. To start learning more about your bone health and risk for fracture, I encourage you to take our quick and easy Bone Health Profile.

Table: Women’s experience of vertebral fracture pain

Vertebral fractureArthritis
Risk factors
  • Older age
  • Previous fracture (nonvertebral)
  • Diagnosis of osteoporosis
Duration of painShort-term, recent (occurring within days or weeks of the study); episodes are brief or transient with no apparent patternLong-term (present months or years prior to study); episodes are “periodic” or intermittent
OnsetSuddenGradual
Type of pain“Crushing” but localizedPain description varies but it is ongoing or intermittent and may occur anywhere from neck to legs
Other
  • Relieved by lying down
  • Does not radiate to legs
  • No obvious association to weather or temperature
  • No clear effect on pain of keeping still or moving
  • May radiate to legs
  • Some associations with cold, damp, or changing weather conditions
Vertebral Fracture vs Arthritis

Vertebral Fracture vs Arthritis

Reference: 

Clark EM, Gooberman-Hill R, Peter TJ. Using self-reports of pain and other variables to distinguish between older women with back pain due to vertebral fractures and those with back pain due to degenerative changes. Osteoporos Int 2016;27:1459–1467.


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