New Procedure Offers Hope for Osteoporosis Spine Fractures

August 06, 2002
Contact: The Spine Center (415) 353-2808

Lois Jane Behnke was in such excruciating pain after fracturing a vertebra in a tennis court fall that she didn't know if she'd ever pick up a racquet again.

"I was still able to walk, but very painfully," said the retired school teacher and Realtor. "Tears were running from my eyes the whole time. And I was taking Vicodin (a prescription pain medication) constantly."

Behnke, 71, is one of the 700,000 Americans who suffer a spinal fracture every year, usually as a result of osteoporosis, a condition that can reduce bone mass to the breaking point.

Behnke has always been athletic ("I used to work out at a gym but I decided two years ago that I liked tennis better."), one of the factors that helps maintain bone strength. But she had her age and her body type -- very small boned -- going against her. She also has lost height, going from 5 feet 4 inches to less than 5 feet 3 inches -- a common indicator of tiny spinal fractures. Ten years ago, she fractured a vertebra but the pain wasn't as severe.

"I guess I got used to it," Behnke recalled.

This time, there was no getting used to the pain. When Dr. Vedat Deviren, one of the surgeons in the UCSF Spine Center, suggested a relatively new procedure called kyphoplasty to repair the vertebra, Behnke was willing to try anything.

"It was the difference between night and day," Behnke said of waking up virtually pain-free after the surgery. "It was just unbelievable."

Behnke spent the night in the hospital and went home the next day.

Kyphoplasty is a minimally invasive operation in which the surgeon uses only a couple of Band Aid-size incisions on each side of the spine rather than a large-incision "open" surgery. Through one of the tiny incisions, a flexible tube called a catheter is threaded into the cracked vertebra. A balloon attached to the tip of the catheter is inflated with liquid to jack up the collapsed bone, which often restores height. Then bone cement is injected to stabilize the vertebra.

In Behnke's case, Deviren also took the opportunity to repair the vertebra she had broken a decade earlier.

"It's common to have multiple adjacent fractures," he said. "In the past, we could do open surgery on young patients to fix spine fractures with screws and rods. But that wasn't appropriate for older patients and most patients with osteoporosis fractures are older women. All we could do was give them a brace and pain medication."

UCSF Medical Center specialists have been performing kyphoplasties for the past two years with good results, Deviren said. However, they are still studying the long-term benefits of the procedure.

Three weeks after her kyphoplasty, Behnke was looking appraisingly out her window at the tennis court. Asked if she intended to play again, she was as firm as her newly repaired spinal bones. "I certainly will," she said.

For more information about kyphoplasty, please call the Spine Center at (415) 353-2808. For help finding a doctor, please contact the Physician Referral Center at (888) 689-UCSF or email referral.center@ucsfmedctr.org