, Volume 16, Issue 7, pp 717-728
Date: 03 May 2005

Identification of vertebral fractures: An update

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Abstract

Osteoporotic vertebral fracture is associated with increased morbidity and mortality. As a powerful predictor of future fracture risk, the identification of vertebral fracture helps target individuals who will benefit from anti-fracture therapy. The identification of vertebral fractures is problematic because (1) “normal” radiological appearances in the spine vary greatly both among and within individuals; (2) “normal” vertebrae may exhibit misleading radiological appearances due to radiographic projection error; and (3) “abnormal” appearances due to non-fracture deformities and normal variants are common, but can be difficult to differentiate from true vertebral fracture. Various methods of vertebral fracture definition have been proposed, but there is no agreed gold standard. Quantitative methods of vertebral fracture definition are objective and reproducible, but the major limitation of these methods is their inability to differentiate between vertebral deformity and vertebral fracture. The qualitative visual approach draws on the expertise of the reader, but it is a subjective method with poor interobserver agreement. Semiquantitative assessment of vertebral fracture is a standardized visual method, which is commonly applied in research studies as a surrogate gold standard. This method is more objective and reproducible than a purely qualitative approach, but can be difficult to apply. The established methods focus primarily on the identification of “reduced” or short vertebral height as an indication of vertebral fracture, but this is also a feature of some non-fracture deformities and normal variants. A modified visual approach known as algorithm-based qualitative assessment of vertebral fracture (ABQ) has recently been introduced, and this focuses on radiological evidence of change at the vertebral endplate as the primary indicator of fracture. Preliminary testing of the ABQ method has produced promising results, but the method requires further evaluation. Vertebral imaging by means of dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scanner produces images of near-radiographic quality at a fraction of the radiation dose incurred by conventional radiography. There is growing interest in vertebral fracture assessment using this technique as a means of assessing a patient’s fracture risk. Given the increasing availability of new technology and the importance of accurate diagnosis of vertebral fracture, there is an urgent need for better awareness of and training in the definition of vertebral fracture. Methods of vertebral fracture definition should be validated by testing the association with clinical outcomes of vertebral fracture, in particular the prediction of incident fractures.