What is a Flexion-Distraction Fracture?

Home » What is a Flexion-Distraction Fracture?
January 06, 2020
Edward Smith

An Overview of a Flexion-Distraction Fracture

A flexion-distraction fracture is a common spinal injury that takes place during a motor vehicle accident. This injury has the potential to damage the spinal cord, leading to complications involving motor and sensory functions. Fortunately, with fast, proper treatment, many individuals will make a meaningful recovery.

A flexion-distraction fracture typically takes place in individuals who are restrained with a lap belt but without a shoulder seatbelt. The abdomen acts as a fulcrum as someone’s chest is thrown forward while the abdomen is restrained. This flexes the spine to an extreme degree, leading to a compression fracture of the front (anterior) portion of one or more vertebrae. While the front of the spinal vertebrae is compressed, the back (posterior) parts are stretched. This is termed a “distraction” injury and can lead to further vertebral fractures.

Diagnosis of a Flexion-Distraction Fracture

Those who have sustained a flexion-distraction fracture in a car accident will experience extreme back pain. If there is nerve damage, there might be some weakness, numbness, or tingling in various locations throughout the body. On a physical exam, the doctor may note bruising of the back or pain that gets worse with movement. This will trigger the physician to order imaging scans.

The first imaging scan that will be ordered is an x-ray. This type of fracture most often shows up in the lumbar region of the spine, toward the bottom. The radiologist may note a fracture line directly through one or more vertebrae in this location. There may also be a widened space between the vertebrae at this location, resulting from the distraction injury.

If the doctor needs more details on the severity of the fracture, he or she may order a CT scan. This will show the fracture lines in three dimensions. The physician may also be concerned about damage to the spinal ligaments, spinal cord, and abdominal organs. In this case, the radiologist may order an MRI.

Associated Injuries Throughout the Abdomen

In a car accident, it is common for a flexion-distraction fracture to be diagnosed with other injuries throughout the abdominal cavity. One of the most common injuries is damage to the pancreas. This organ may be compressed in the accident or punctured by a bone fragment. If the pancreas has been injured, this may lead to digestive problems in the future.

Another common injury involves the small intestines. One segment, called the duodenum, appears to be particularly susceptible to injury. If the intestines have been punctured, this may cause fecal matter to leak throughout the abdominal cavity. This may lead to septic shock and is considered a medical and surgical emergency.

Treatment and Prognosis

Some patients who suffer a flexion-distraction fracture may require surgery. If there are signs of damage to the spinal cord, such as numbness, weakness, or tingling, then surgery may be necessary. Surgery is also required if there is any damage to organs located in the abdominal cavity. Finally, surgery may also be needed to repair the fracture if there are any displaced bone fragments.

If the fracture is stable and there isn’t any sign of damage to the spinal cord or abdomen, then surgery may not be required. In this case, the patient will be placed in a brace for several weeks as the fracture heals. Once the brace is removed, physical therapy may be required to strengthen the core and back muscles.

For patients that do not have any nerve damage, the prognosis is generally good. Sometimes, patients whose fractures heal improperly may develop a hunchback or chronic pain. With rapid, appropriate treatment, these complications can be avoided.

Watch YouTube Video: Flexion-Distraction Injury of the Lumbar Spine. In this video, Dr. Nabil Ebraheim explains everything you need to know about a flexion-distraction injury.

Sacramento Personal Injury Lawyer

I’m Ed Smith, a Sacramento Personal Injury Lawyer. A flexion-distraction fracture is a common back injury following a motor vehicle accident. If someone you care for has been diagnosed with a severe injury in a car accident, please call my office today at (916) 921-6400 or (800) 404-5400 for free, friendly advice.

My client reviews & ratings are on Yelp, Avvo, & Google.

I am proud to be a member of the Million Dollar Advocates and of the National Association of Distinguished Counsel.

If you would like to read about our earlier cases, go to our Verdicts and Settlements page.

Photo by Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash

:dr 0p cha [cs 757]