Sister Anne Louise Stoelzel was heading toward bed - for the rest of her life.

In December, the Ursuline sister, 76, was taking her turn at dishes in the religious community in Ottawa Hills, Ohio, where she lives with 23 other Catholic nuns. As she lifted a dishpan from a commercial sink, something snapped.The pain was excruciating. It was the stab that comes from collapsing vertebrae, the column of 33 bones we count on to hold us upright. Two of hers crumbled like dry bread.

It's a common fracture, likely to become more common as America ages. One-third of all women over 65 are expected to experience similar breaks.

Until recently compression fractures meant, at best, wearing a sort of plastic armor from collarbone to tailbone and taking regular doses of painkillers.

Sometimes compressed vertebrae can be removed in a major surgery that requires the remaining spine to be riveted together with metal cages or bone grafts, said Dr. Scott T. Dull, a neurosurgeon with the Neurosurgical Network Inc. in Toledo, Ohio.

But in some cases, these breaks end activity, creating a bedridden future and the life-threatening complications that long bed rest brings.

"Compression fractures are a death sentence for many people," said Dr. Jeffrey M. Boorstein, chief of neuroradiology and neurointerventional therapy at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo. "For others, it destroys their quality of life."

But Sister Anne Louise has cement in her spine. Doctors injected it in a simple outpatient procedure that shored her body's main scaffolding. She was the first Toledo patient to try the technique.

Charlotte L. Wittman was the third Toledo-area patient to have her spine paved.

For two hours, she lay on her stomach suspended in the arching jaws of X-ray equipment.

Once the needle was positioned in the marrow space - the center of the vertebral body - Dr. J. Kevin McGraw and Dr. Shayle B. Patzik mixed the plastic cement to fill the weakened structure. The polymer is combined with titanium and barium so it will show up on X-rays. It's salted with a bit of antibiotic to reduce the chance of infection.

Once mixed, the putty-colored substance was injected into the hollow needle sticking out from Wittman's back.

A second needle was positioned on the other side of the bone. Again, cement that smells like airplane glue was mixed and injected.

Thousands of Americans suffer from similar vertebral compression fractures every year. Osteoporosis is usually the cause. It's a disease of aging in which bones become ever more porous as deterioration outstrips the body's ability to rebuild tissue.

It makes people more vulnerable to fractures of all kinds, causing 1.5 million bone breaks a year at a cost of $10 billion annually, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

While cementing damaged vertebrae is an important advance in treating compression fractures, not ev-ery-one is eligible, Boorstein said.

Patients must be referred for the procedure after their physician determines the standard treatments of bracing, pain medication and rest are not working.

But that decision can't be delayed too long. Once the vertebra is compressed by more than half, it is too late to cement it, Boorstein said.

The procedure works by stabilizing the remaining bone.

"Finally there's a cure for some kinds of back pain," Boorstein said. "This is a true cure."