You’ve broken a vertebra from a fall or an accident, and you’re wondering how long you’ll need to wear your brace, have difficulty walking, be unable to drive or work?
What is the healing and recovery time for a vertebral fracture?
With my background as a physiotherapist and based on my experience and in-depth research in medical literature, I’m here to provide you with the most useful information on this topic.
Feel free to leave comments for any feedback, sharing your experiences, or asking questions! Happy reading 🙂!
Take-home message: After about a month and a half, your vertebra often begins to be well consolidated. However, it is possible (and even recommended) to remain active even during the consolidation period! It generally takes 2 months to 1 year to make a full recovery from a vertebral fracture.
Last update: October 2023
Disclaimer: Affiliate links. Complete disclosure in legal notices.
Written by Nelly Darbois, physical therapist and scientific writer
What are the different types of vertebral fractures I’m going to talk about?
We generally have 33 vertebrae in the back:
7 cervical vertebrae, indicated by the letter C. For example, when we say a C5 fracture, it means the 5th vertebra from the top is broken;
12 thoracic vertebrae (also known as dorsal vertebrae), designated with the letter T or D. A T10 fracture = a fracture of the 10th thoracic vertebra from the top; D12 = a fracture of the 12th from the top;
5 lumbar vertebrae, designated by the letter L. An L5 fracture = it’s the 5th lumbar vertebra that is broken.
All of these vertebrae can break, and in such cases, it’s referred to as a vertebral fracture. Multiple vertebrae can break simultaneously.
Different Types of Vertebral Fractures
Vertebral fractures are classified based on their location in the back (lumbar, thoracic, or cervical) and also on how precisely they are broken, including the part of the vertebra that’s affected, the number of pieces, the shape of the fracture line, and more.
Here are the main types of vertebral fractures.
Compression Fracture: The vertebra loses height due to collapse, often resulting from direct compression force on the vertebra, such as from a fall from a height. This does not include osteoporotic vertebral fractures, especially in older individuals.
Flexion Fracture: These occur after a fall or an accident and may involve various bone structures in the vertebra, including the anterior, posterior, or lateral portions.
Rotation Fracture: When the spine experiences excessive torsion, often due to intense physical activity or an accident.
Avulsion Fracture: This type occurs when ligaments or muscles attached to the vertebra exert sudden and violent force, tearing off a fragment of bone.
Wedge Fracture: These fractures result in a loss of height at the front or back of the vertebra, creating a wedge-like shape.
Chance Fracture or Burst Fracture: This type involves a loss of bone substance due to direct impact.
Pathological Fracture: These occur in weakened bones due to underlying bone diseases like cancer or other conditions affecting bone strength.
There are other types of vertebral fractures that I won’t specifically cover:
❌ Osteoporotic vertebral fractures, as I’ve already dedicated an article to them. These are the most common vertebral fractures, especially in older individuals.
❌ Cervical fractures, because their progression and treatment can be different. This will be the subject of a future article!
❌ Fractures with vascular and nerve injuries leading to different types of issues; these will also be addressed in future articles!
For example, displaced fractures that compress the spinal cord and may cause leg paralysis or even trunk and arm paralysis (paraplegia, paraparesis, tetraplegia, or tetraparesis).
How to Determine Your Specific Type of Vertebral Fracture?
It’s common to be informed that you have a “vertebral fracture” and which vertebra is affected. However, you might not have been told the specific type of fracture.
This isn’t critical since knowing the precise type of vertebra won’t fundamentally change your recovery plan.
But if you still want this information, you can:
- Check the reports from your imaging exams (X-rays, CT scans, MRIs).
- Review the medical report from your visit to the emergency room, hospital, or the physician who made the diagnosis.
- If you had surgery, look at the operation report.
You should typically find more information about the specific type of fracture. You may also come across indications like type IIa, type IV, etc. These are classifications used by doctors and surgeons.
On your exam, X-ray, CT scan, MRI, or consultation reports, you will find the specific type of fracture you have and which vertebrae are affected.
Recovery Time vs. Healing Time – What’s the Difference?
You may be wondering about the difference between “ealing” and the more general concept of “recovery.”
Healing Time: This is the period during which the fractured bone repairs and heals. It’s the time required for bone fragments to come together and bond to form a strong union. During this period, special cells called osteoblasts work on the formation of new bone tissue around the fracture.
The healing time can vary depending on the type and severity of the fracture, the individual’s overall health, age, and other factors. Generally, several weeks to several months are needed for consolidation to be complete.
This time frame is similar to that for most other bones in the human body!
Recovery Time: This encompasses not only bone consolidation but also the restoration of normal function and the elimination of symptoms. It includes the restoration of your mobility and strength, along with the complete recovery of soft tissues (muscles, ligaments, etc.) surrounding the fractured vertebra.
Healing time is often longer than consolidation time and can take several months.
Healing Time for a Thoracic Vertebral Fracture?
The consolidation process begins within the first days following the fracture spontaneously, without any specific actions on your part.
Typically, a follow-up X-ray is performed about six weeks after the diagnosis of a thoracic vertebral fracture, as this is a point when the healing process is already well advanced.
The medical team checks whether you’re consolidating “within the norms” around 4 to 8 weeks after the fracture, which is the case most of the time.
Your bone will take a few more months after this date (6 weeks) to fully return to its pre-fracture state. However, there’s generally no need for further checks if the consolidation process was already on track.
Healing Time for a Lumbar Vertebral Fracture?
A lumbar vertebra typically takes the same amount of time as a thoracic/dorsal vertebral fracture to consolidate. Therefore, consolidation is often well advanced after 6 weeks.
What Is the Recovery Time for a Lumbar or Thoracic Vertebral Fracture?
Here are some “typical” recovery timelines after a thoracic or lumbar vertebral fracture.
These timelines are based on my experience as a physical therapist, except for those for which I found empirical data in international scientific publications.
|Your bones begin to consolidate well||6-8 weeks|
|You experience significantly less pain||A few days to a few weeks|
Some people may have severe pain and find relief only in specific positions (often lying on their side). However, this is not necessarily an indicator of severity or a longer recovery period.
|You start walking with crutches or a walker||Immediately – Sometimes after only 2 months if walking is contraindicated, and you’re advised to remain lying down or semi-reclined.|
|You resume walking without any assistive devices||A few weeks to a few months|
|You have fully recovered: back and hip flexibility, muscle strength, physical activities and sports, work||3 months at best – sometimes up to 1 year or more|
In a professional soccer player after a thoracic fracture, a reported case: 3 months before returning to training, 2 years before returning to pre-injury competitive level (Huang 2016)
The healing time for a dorsal or lumbar fracture in an elderly individual is several months, even though it’s possible to gradually resume daily activities over the days from the beginning.
Does undergoing surgery impact the healing duration?
Yes, having surgery for a broken vertebra can impact the healing duration, in both directions—either lengthening or shortening it.
It’s just one of the many factors to consider when estimating the healing timeline, but it’s still challenging to predict how quickly you will recover reliably.
Here are four reasons why surgery can influence the healing duration after a vertebral fracture.
- Stabilization: Surgery may involve fixing bone fragments using screws, plates, or other stabilizing devices. This can provide better immediate spinal stability, but the recovery period can be extended because the body needs time to heal around the new hardware.
- Risk of Complications: Surgical procedures always carry the risk of complications such as infection, wound healing problems, excessive bleeding, and more. If complications arise, they can prolong the healing duration. Rest assured, however, that this is more of an exception than a rule.
- Individual Response: Each person’s response to surgery is unique. Some individuals may recover more quickly than others based on factors like age, overall health, and genetic predisposition to healing well.
- Type of Fracture: A more complex fracture may lead to the decision for surgery and the associated healing duration.
How long should you wear a brace after a broken vertebra?
There’s more data available on wearing a brace for vertebral compression fractures due to osteoporosis than for other types of vertebral fractures.
Often, whether you’ve had surgery or not, you’ll be provided with a custom-made orthopedic brace by an orthotist. The reasons behind this are believed to be:
- Enhanced stabilization of the fracture (especially if it’s displaced), which promotes healing and reduces the risk of complications (such as nerve compression).
- Reduced pain.
- Decreased pressure on your vertebral discs, thereby minimizing potential damage.
These are reasonable theories in principle, but it’s challenging to support them with empirical data by comparing the progress of individuals with or without a brace. The limited data available suggests that:
- Wearing a brace reduces pain (compared to not using any brace).
- It improves mobility.
- However, it does not significantly impact the quality of healing. Source: Karimi 2015
How long should you wear the brace? Typically, at least 3 to 4 weeks, often 6 to 8 weeks, and sometimes up to 3 months.
However, if the brace causes significant discomfort, you can always discuss its necessity with your physical therapist or doctor. They may consult with your surgeon to explore alternative options, even if it’s well before the planned end date for wearing the brace.
Some individuals are tempted to use a soft lumbar belt instead of a brace. While these belts can alleviate pain, they don’t provide the same level of fracture stabilization.
Posture correctors are also not recommended for thoracolumbar fracture recovery.
How long should you refrain from walking after a broken vertebra?
Except in specific cases, walking is often permitted after a vertebral fracture.
It’s even considered part of the treatment as it helps maintain and regain mobility and muscular strength and, most importantly, prevents complications associated with prolonged bed rest (such as phlebitis, skin problems, constipation, etc.).
Crutches are frequently recommended to alleviate pain and can be gradually phased out over days or weeks.
As in rehabilitation, the idea is to take things progressively—gradually increasing your walking distance each day, even if it’s just a few meters initially. It’s essential to observe how your body reacts, especially during the night, and then gradually increase the walking duration or speed each day.
For a more comprehensive discussion of whether walking is allowed after a vertebral compression fracture, please refer to my previous article.
See also: Can You Walk With a Fractured Back?
What’s the duration of a work hiatus for a vertebral fracture?
In France, the National Health Insurance offers recommendations for the duration of work leave for various fractures or surgeries, but not for the aftermath of vertebral fractures.
The duration will depend on your occupation and your ability to recover quickly.
It’s common, however, to be on work leave for several weeks or even several months after a thoracic or lumbar fracture, especially for physically demanding jobs.
For physically demanding jobs, a gradual return to work at part-time is often suitable to facilitate a progressive reintegration.
Here are some data from a study that followed 70 individuals who had surgery after a dorsal or lumbar fracture (McLain 2004), including those with spinal cord injuries:
- Five years after the fracture, 70% were able to return to full-time work.
- Those with neurological injuries had the slowest return to work.
In the UK, the NHS recommends returning to work within 4 to 6 weeks for office jobs and 3 to 4 months for more physically demanding positions.
Here’s what I wanted to tell you about this! I wish you a very good recovery! Do you have any comments or questions? Your comments are welcome 🙂 !
If you feel the need to learn more about the recovery period after a fracture, I wrote this guide in eBook format:
You may also like:
Whitney E, Alastra AJ. Vertebral Fracture. [Updated 2023 Apr 3]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK547673/
Donnally III CJ, DiPompeo CM, Varacallo M. Vertebral Compression Fractures. [Updated 2022 Nov 14]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448171/
Karimi M. The effects of orthosis on thoracolumbar fracture healing: A review of the literature. J Orthop. 2015 Nov 17;12(Suppl 2):S230-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jor.2015.10.014. PMID: 27047228; PMCID: PMC4796569.
Huang P, Anissipour A, McGee W, Lemak L. Return-to-Play Recommendations After Cervical, Thoracic, and Lumbar Spine Injuries: A Comprehensive Review. Sports Health. 2016 Jan-Feb;8(1):19-25. doi: 10.1177/1941738115610753. Epub 2015 Oct 14. PMID: 26502187; PMCID: PMC4702157.
NHS, Spinal fracture
Images : Kim BG, Dan JM, Shin DE. Treatment of thoracolumbar fracture. Asian Spine J. 2015 Feb;9(1):133-46. doi: 10.4184/asj.2015.9.1.133. Epub 2015 Feb 13. PMID: 25705347; PMCID: PMC4330209.
Written by Nelly Darbois
I love writing articles based on my experience as a physiotherapist (since 2012), scientific writer, and extensive researcher in international scientific literature.
I live in the French Alps 🌞❄️, where I work as a scientific editor for my own website, which is where you are right now.