(Broken Neck; Cervical Fracture)
by Mary Calvagna, MS
A neck fracture is a break in one or more of the 7 cervical bones. The vertebrae are the bones that make up the spine. The cervical vertebrae in the neck are labeled C1-C7. They protect the spinal cord, support the neck, and allow for movement.
A neck fracture is caused by severe trauma to the neck, which is strong enough to break the vertebrae. Trauma may be caused by:
Factors that may increase the risk of neck fracture include:
A person with a neck injury should not be moved without competent medical care, which is needed right away.
Neck fracture may cause:
You will most likely be taken to a hospital. You will be asked about your symptoms, physical activity, and how the injury occurred. Your neck will be examined and a complete neurological exam will be done.
Imaging tests evaluate the spine and surrounding structures. These may include:
Neck fractures are serious injuries that can lead to paralysis or death. Call for emergency medical services right away.
Immobilize and Stabilize the Injury
When there is a possibility of a neck fracture, immediate and complete immobilization of the head and neck area is necessary. Excessive movement will need to be avoided to prevent or minimize spinal cord injury. For athletes, it is recommended to keep the helmet and shoulder pads on while immobilizing the spine.
Other problems, such as secondary injuries, shock, or airway obstruction, will also be assessed. Stabilizing the injury may include:
Treatment will depend on:
Treatment options for neck fracture include:
Overall recovery time depends on whether or not there are permanent injuries. Physical therapy and rehabilitation can last for months or years.
People with neck fractures usually need to stay in the hospital. Serious injuries may need to be watched in an intensive care unit. Some people with neck fractures need to have help breathing. A tube is inserted and mechanical ventilation is used to protect and assist breathing.
Prescription or over-the-counter medications may be needed to relieve pain. Antibiotics may also be needed if an infection is present or possible.
Rest and Recovery
Healing time varies by age and overall health. Children and people in better overall health heal faster. In general, it may take several weeks to several months for a neck fracture to heal.
Physical therapy will be needed to keep your muscles strong. There may be permanent damage or paralysis even if the neck heals. If this is the case, long-term rehabilitation will be needed.
A neck fracture can sometimes result in spinal cord and nerve injury and paralysis. This may require major life changes, involving work, family, and social life. Extensive rehabilitation may be required, including occupational therapy, psychotherapy, or support groups.
To help reduce your chance of getting a neck fracture:
To help reduce falling hazards at work and home:
American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Canadian Orthopaedic Association
When it Hurts to Move—Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation
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Last reviewed September 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Warren A. Bodine, DO, CAQSM
Last Updated: 9/30/2013
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