What Is a Clay-Shoveler's Fracture?

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Reviewed on 1/11/2018

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What is a clay-shoveler's fracture?

Doctor's response

A clay-shoveler's fracture is an uncommon breakage of the spine of the vertebrae from the lower neck or upper back as a result of stress.

Clay-shoveler's fracture usually occurs in laborers who perform activities involving lifting weights rapidly with the arms extended. Examples of these activities include shoveling soil, rubble or snow up and over the head backwards, using a pickax or scythe, and pulling out roots.

The sheer force of the muscles (trapezius and rhomboid muscles) pulling on the spine at the base of the neck actually tears off the bone of the spine.

Symptoms of clay-shoveler's fracture include burning, "knife-like" pain at the level of the fractured spine (7th cervical vertebra) between the upper shoulder blades. The pain can sharply increase with repeated activity that strains the muscles of the upper back. The broken spine and nearby muscles are exquisitely tender.

Clay-shoveler's fracture is diagnosed by x-ray examination of the spine.

While the intense pain gradually subsides in days to weeks, the area can intermittently develop burning pain with certain activities that involve prolonged extending of the arms (like computer work).

Most patients require no treatment. Pain medications, physical therapy, and massage can be of help. Occasionally, surgical removal of the tip of the broken spine is performed for those with longstanding pain.

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Reviewed on 1/11/2018