Surgeons Fix Brittle Bones with Balloons & Glue

Osteoporosis is a loss of bone mass, causing the bones to become thin and fracture easily. The condition most commonly affects the bones of the hip, spine, and wrist. In some cases, the bones become so fragile that even minor trauma, such as a bump or lifting a heavy object, can cause the bone to fracture.

According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, about 10 million Americans have osteoporosis and more than 30 million more have low bone mass (making them at risk for osteoporosis). Roughly eighty percent of cases occur in women. The condition is more common in older people. And with the aging population, osteoporosis is expected to affect more than 14 million Americans by 2020. Other risk factors include: family history, smoking, excessive use of alcohol and caffeine, inadequate intake of calcium and vitamin D, lack of regular weight-bearing exercise, and having a small, thin body frame.

Osteoporosis is often called a "silent" disease. That's because many people don't know they have the condition until they experience an unexpected fracture. Osteoporosis leads to more than 1.5 million fractures yearly. The most common site of fracture is the spine, with 700,000 fractures. Osteoporosis is also responsible for roughly 300,000 hip fractures, 250,000 wrist fractures, and 300,000 fractures elsewhere in the body. In 2001, the estimated cost of osteoporosis treatment and fractures was $17 billion.

Treating Painful Spinal Fractures
A spinal fracture can cause compression of the vertebrae, leading to pain, stooped posture, and a loss of height. The typical treatment is rest, pain medication, bracing, and, if necessary, physical and occupational therapy. But once a spinal fracture occurs, patients are at increased risk for more fractures, and surgery may be necessary to stabilize the spine.

Some doctors are using a less invasive treatment for patients with osteoporosis-related spinal fractures, called kyphoplasty. A small incision is made into the back. Then, a cannula or probe is placed into the bone at the site of the fracture. Next, a balloon, or bone tamp, is inserted into the space. Using X-rays for guidance, the balloon is slowly inflated. As the balloon enlarges, it lifts the bone, creating a space and bringing the bone back to the desired position and height. The balloon is removed and doctors slowly inject a bone cement into the space. The cement quickly hardens, providing stability for the bone and alleviating the patient's pain.

Kyphoplasty is typically performed under local or general anesthesia. Patients are usually in the hospital for a day or two and can quickly resume normal activities. The procedure doesn't stop osteoporosis, but it may prevent the downward spinal of compression fractures and associated pain and deformity.

For information on osteoporosis:
North American Spine Society, 22 Calendar Court, 2nd Floor, LaGrange, IL 60525,
National Institutes of Health, Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases~National Resource Center, 1232 22nd Street, NW, Washington, DC 20037-1292,, (800) 624-BONE
National Osteoporosis Foundation,