DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I received very distressing news. I have a fractured backbone. I had pain in my upper back for more than a week. I thought I had pulled a muscle, but because the pain lingered, I saw my doctor. An X-ray disclosed I have a backbone fracture due to osteoporosis. I am 82. I am taking pain medicine. Can anything else be done? – T.R.

A common complication of osteoporosis is a vertebral (backbone) compression fracture. The backbones support all the body weight above the hip when we are vertical. Bones weakened from osteoporosis aren’t able to prop up so much weight. They crumble. That’s a vertebral compression fracture.

Some feel no pain, while others suffer agonizing pain. All lose height. In the upper back, compression fractures can have an impact on breathing because the lungs have less room to expand. In the lower back, abdominal organs are squashed for the same reason.

Kyphoplasty (KEYE-foe-PLAST-ee) is a procedure that employs a small instrument with a balloon at its tip. The instrument is inserted into the collapsed backbone, and the balloon is inflated to create a hollow space. The space is filled with bone cement (not real cement). The height of the backbone is restored and pain is relieved.

Another procedure is vertebroplasty. Bone cement is injected directly into the affected backbone. That stabilizes the bone and stops the pain. It doesn’t, however, restore bone height.

Talk to your doctor about these procedures. One might be suitable for you. The earlier they’re done after a compression fracture takes place, the better the results.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: My father is in the last stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He is in a nursing home and is bedridden for most of the day. He doesn’t recognize my mother or me. We cannot communicate with him.

My mother is worried that he might be feeling pain and is unable to tell anyone. Is there some way I can assure her that he is not suffering? This is most important to my mother. – J.F.

If your dad reacts to a pinch, he can feel pain and he can communicate the feeling as we all do – by wincing. It’s a reflex that most often remains intact even in the late stages of Alzheimer’s.

The staff at the nursing home is instructed to pay careful attention to any signs that a patient is in discomfort. They take particular care to inspect all patients for any signs that the skin might be breaking down to form a bedsore.

Alzheimer’s disease is an illness almost as hard on relatives as it is on patients. The Alzheimer’s booklet gives the details of this illness and its treatments. Readers can order a copy by writing: Dr. Donohue, No. 903, Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Enclose a check or money order (no cash) for $4.75 U.S./$6 Can. with the recipient’s printed name and address. Please allow four weeks for delivery.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I have a friend who thinks that a person who receives a heart transplant takes on some of the ways of the donor. I say no. The heart is just an organ. – C.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Sometimes you hear that people who have a heart or liver transplant take on the personality of the person who donated the organ. Is this true or not? – N.N.

That’s fantasy, stuff of fictional literature. It doesn’t happen.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Sometimes I jerk awake just before falling asleep. Why? Can anything be done about it? – J.A.

That happens to lots of people, and sometimes it happens when a person is just wakening. There’s a temporary disconnect between the brain and muscles at those times, and it results in a short jerk. It’s not a sign of any illness.

I don’t know of any treatment for it. Most people fall asleep shortly after it happens.

Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Readers may also order health newsletters from

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