Treating spinal fractures in cancer patients

By Ann Griswold • Published: January 30th, 2007
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Debilitating back pain can spell serious trouble for cancer patients. Back pain is often the first sign that cancer has spread throughout the body, to the spine and other areas. Tumors can fracture vertebrae in the spine, reducing mobility and inducing agonizing pain.

In many cases, spinal fractures are left untreated. Physicians hesitate to perform open surgery on cancer patients whose health is already precarious from chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Instead of surgery, some patients opt for a simple procedure known as “vertebroplasty.” The patient receives mild anesthesia while doctors inject a cement-like substance into the broken vertebrae to stabilize the fracture. The procedure takes minutes and most patients experience immediate improvements in pain and mobility.

Although vertebroplasty is well-tolerated by cancer patients, serious complications can result if cancer cells or cement particles break away from the fracture and enter the bloodstream.

But a new technique, called “tumor-debulking assisted vertebroplasty,” promises all of the benefits of traditional vertebroplasty with significantly fewer health risks.

The procedure has a complicated name, but the process is simple: Doctors insert a tiny “spine wand” into the area to gently dissolve part of the tumor, creating an empty space around the vertebrae. A special bone glue is injected into the cavity, cementing the fracture in place. By reducing tumor size and creating room for the glue, particles are less likely to exit the fracture site.

As with traditional vertebroplasty, recovery time is minimal and the results are nearly instantaneous.