(Broken Neck; Cervical Fracture)
by Mary Calvagna, MS
A neck fracture is a break in one or more of the seven 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.
It is important to recognize the possibility of a neck fracture.
A neck fracture is caused by severe trauma to the neck, which is strong enough to break the vertebra. Trauma may be caused by:
Risk Factors TOP
Factors that increase your risk of neck fracture include:
A neck fracture is very serious and can lead to paralysis or possibly death. A person with a neck injury should not be moved without competent medical care, which is needed immediately.
Neck fracture may cause:
You will most likely be taken to a hospital. The doctor will ask about your symptoms, physical activity, and how the injury occurred. The doctor will examine the injured area and perform a complete neurological exam.
Imaging tests may include:
Neck fractures are serious injuries that can lead to paralysis or death. Call for medical help 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. Avoid excessive movement to prevent or minimize spinal cord injury. For athletes, it is recommended to keep the helmet and shoulder pads on while immobilizing the spine.
Once immobilized, you will be assessed for any other problems, such as secondary injuries, shock, or airway obstruction. Stabilizing your injury may include:
Once you are stabilized and assessed, your course of treatment will depend on:
Treatment options for neck fracture include:
Overall recovery time depends on whether or not you have any 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.
You may need the following:
Rest and Recovery TOP
Healing time varies by age and your 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.
As you recover, you may be referred to physical therapy to keep your muscles strong. Do not return to activities or sports until your doctor gives you permission to do so.
It is possible that you may have permanent damage or paralysis even if your neck heals. If this is the case, you will need long-term rehabilitation.
Long-term Rehabilitation TOP
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.
If you have a neck fracture, follow your doctor's instructions.
To help reduce your chance of getting a neck fracture, take these steps:
To help reduce falling hazards at work and home, take these steps:
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine
Canadian Orthopaedic Association
Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation
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Last reviewed September 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 9/30/2013