A traumatic spinal injury where a vertebra is either severely compressed or breaks from a high-energy axial load (a force exerted along the lines of an axis). Unlike a compression fracture, a burst fracture crushes the margins of the vertebral body to where they spread out in all directions. Because the margins are spread out in all directions, the spinal cord is liable to be injured (causing paralysis or partial neurologic injury to the victim.)
A burst fracture typically occurs when the spine undergoes a great deal of force, such as by a motor vehicle accident or a fall from a height.
A mild burst fracture may give the victim transient symptoms with little to no pain. More severe fractures, however, can cause dangerous nerve injury where the victim loses strength and sensation in the area below the injury. If the burst fracture occurs at the junction of the thoracic and lumbar spines, the victim may endur paralysis of the legs.
The diagnosis of a burst fracture is usually made by x-rays and a CAT scan. Occasionally, an MRI scan may be ordered as well, in order to assess the amount of soft tissue trauma, bleeding or ligament disruption. The review of the CAT scan and x-rays allows the treating physician to make a determination as to the level of the fracture, whether it is a compression fracture, burst fracture or fracture dislocation. A stable burst fracture may be treated without surgery, where the patient is instructed to wear a brace. Unstable burst fractures usually do better with early surgery, where the surgeon makes an incision in the back of the spine in order to place rods, screws and hooks in order to hold the spine in place.