(Broken Neck; Cervical Fracture)
by Mary Calvagna, MS
A neck fracture is a break in one or more of the cervical bones (vertebrae in the neck). The vertebrae are the bones that make up the spine.
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.
It is important to recognize the possibility of a neck fracture. Injuries severe enough to cause head injury or other trauma often also cause neck fracture.
A neck fracture is caused by severe trauma to the neck. Trauma includes:
Risk Factors TOP
Risk factors for a neck fracture include:
The doctor will ask about your symptoms, physical activity, and how the injury occurred. The doctor will examine the injured area.
Tests may include:
Treatment depends on:
When there is a possibility of a broken neck, complete immobilization of the neck area is necessary. For athletes, it is recommended to keep the helmet and shoulder pads on while immobilizing the spine.
Brace or Collar
A less serious neck fracture can be treated with a cervical brace or collar. It will need to be worn until the neck completely heals, usually 8 to 12 weeks. The doctor may recommend medications to reduce pain and swelling.
For a more severe fracture, you may need surgery to realign the bones. Your neck may be placed in traction prior to surgery. A metal plate with screws, or other methods of fixation, may be used to help hold the bones in place.
When your doctor decides you are ready, start range-of-motion and strengthening exercises. A physical therapist should assist you with these exercises. Talk with your doctor before returning to any type of physical activity, and about lifting restrictions and other precautions.
You may need to wear a neck splint, spinal brace, or surgical collar for many months. The period of rehabilitation can last many months and even years.
Living with Paralysis
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 physical and occupational therapy, and psychological support.
To help prevent a neck fracture:
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
Physical Therapy Canada
Department of Orthopaedics
University of British Columbia
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: http://www.aaos.org/ . Accessed October 13, 2005.
Bailes JE, Petschauer M, et al. J Athl Train . 2007;42:126-134.
Duane TM, Wilson SP, et al. Canadian cervical spine rule compared with computed tomography: a prospective analysis. J Trauma. 2011;71(2):352-357.
Looby S, Flanders A. Spine trauma. Radiol Clin North Am. 2011;49(1):129-163.
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at: http://www.niams.nih.gov/ . Accessed October 13, 2005.
Rathlev NK, Medzon R, et al. Evaluation and management of neck trauma. Emerg Med Clin North Am . 2007; 25:679-694.
Yanar H. Pedestrians injured by automobiles: risk factors for cervical spine injuries. J Am Coll Surg . 2007;205:794-799.
Last reviewed September 2012 by John C. Keel, MD
Last Updated: 9/28/2012