The neck consists of seven small bones known as cervical vertebrae. These bones sit between the base of the skull and the top of the shoulders. A broken cervical vertebra is commonly known as a broken neck. It may also be called a cervical fracture.
A broken neck can be severe and even life-threatening. This is because the cervical vertebrae help protect the delicate spinal cord and nerves. If there is damage to the spinal cord or nerves, it can cause paralysis or death.
However, if the spinal cord is not damaged, a person may recover from a broken neck with noninvasive care, such as wearing a neck brace or cervical collar.
A doctor will diagnose the severity of the broken neck according to which vertebrae have broken.
Whether serious or minor, a broken neck — or any neck injury — requires immediate medical attention.
A broken neck may happen when a person experiences sudden or hard trauma to the neck or head. This may occur during sports or other physical activity or as the result of an accident or serious fall.
Some other causes of a broken neck include:
- automobile, motorcycle, or bike accidents
- falls, especially from ladders, roofs, and horseback
- diving into a shallow pool or body of water
- falling or hitting an object when skiing, sledding, skateboarding, or surfing
- slamming the head during contact sports, such as football, soccer, hockey, or martial arts
- falling during acrobatic activities, such as cheerleading, gymnastics, or using a trampoline
One study suggests that adolescent athletes have the highest rates of cervical fractures resulting from sports than any other age group.
If a person sustains an injury to their neck in an accident, call 911 and do not move their head, neck, or body. Emergency medical personnel can carefully handle a person without further injuring their neck.
Often, a broken neck will cause severe pain and tenderness in the neck immediately after an accident or fall. Other symptoms include:
- tingling or numbness in any area of the body
- pain that moves from the neck down to the shoulders or arms
- inability to move some or all of the body
- swelling or bruising of the neck
- trouble with walking or balance
- difficulty breathing
The American Association of Neurological Surgeons say that injuries to the neck have the most impact on body movement and feeling because they are high in the spinal column. If a person injures their spinal cord in the neck area, paralysis from the neck down is a risk.
A broken neck is a medical emergency. But it is not always possible to know whether the injury is a break, sprain, or strain without a doctor’s expertise and certain medical tests.
To diagnose a broken neck, doctors may perform the following tests:
- A full neurological exam: A doctor looks for physical signs of spinal cord damage.
- An X-ray: This allows doctors to view the cervical vertebrae and identify cracks or fractures.
- Computed tomography scan (CT or CAT scan): This test provides a detailed view of the spinal cord and the structures surrounding it.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This test uses powerful magnets to produce 3D images of the spine, nerves, and other body structures.
Treatment for a broken neck varies widely. A doctor will base their decision on:
- which of the cervical vertebrae has broken
- the severity of the fracture
- whether the bones have dislocated
- whether there is a spinal cord injury
Possible treatment options include:
Doctors may treat a minor compression fracture in one vertebra with a cervical or neck brace. A person may need to wear the brace for several weeks or months. They may also need pain medicine, either prescription or over-the-counter (OTC).
Traction involves using a device that restricts the movement of the head and neck more than a brace does. It may include weights and pulleys to put the bones in the right position.
A halo vest is a traction device that consists of a hard vest and a ring (halo) around the head. The vest portion connects to the halo with rods. Doctors attach the halo to the skull with special screws.
Some evidence suggests that using a halo vest can shorten a person’s hospital stay and is less expensive than other treatment methods.
However, this form of treatment is controversial. It is an invasive procedure that is unsuitable for some people, including older individuals and some people with obesity.
If the broken neck is severe and using a brace or traction may not be sufficient, a doctor may recommend surgery. Surgery can help with dislocated bones in the neck, a very unstable neck, or if the injury has caused pieces of bone to break off.
After having surgery, a person may need physical therapy and rehabilitation. This treatment may last for several months or longer to ensure a full recovery.
A broken neck may require a person to stay in the hospital for several days or weeks. If a person has surgery, they may have to remain in the hospital for an extended period.
If the break is minor and the spinal cord is intact, some people can wear a brace and, with a doctor’s approval, recover at home.
The following tips may help people who are recovering from a broken neck at home:
- Wear a neck brace or cervical collar precisely as instructed by the doctor. This may include wearing it all the time, including when sleeping.
- Take pain relief medicines as prescribed by a doctor. Do not take more than they recommend.
- If the pain is not under control, call a doctor.
- Do not take OTC pain medicines in addition to prescription pain medicines unless a doctor says to do so.
- Do strengthening exercises if a doctor prescribes them. Do not do other exercises or any activity that makes the pain worse.
- Attend physical therapy sessions as recommended by a doctor. Follow the therapist’s advice for moving and strengthening the neck at home.
- Use a pillow that is the proper height to keep the neck and back in alignment.
- Get a doctor’s approval before returning to work or other activities.
- Try applying a heating pad for up to 20 minutes at a time for additional pain relief. Repeat every two hours as needed. Learn how to make a heating pad here.
- Try applying a cold pack every few hours to help with swelling. Remove it if it gets too cold or feels uncomfortable.
- Take care to avoid falls. Wear proper shoes when going outside, and use nonslip socks or slippers inside. Remove throw rugs or other trip hazards in the house.
- Do not drive until the doctor says it is safe to do so. Even a minor car accident could cause further injury to the neck, and turning the head to drive may interfere with healing.
After recovering from a broken neck, take steps to help prevent another accident or injury. Some things that can help reduce the risk of a broken neck include:
- Always wear a seatbelt in the car.
- Wear a helmet and protective equipment during sports.
- Never dive into water that is less than 12 feet deep or if the depth of the water is unknown.
- Wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle, bike, skateboard, or during other similar activities.
- Use cushioning mats and spotters during acrobatics.
A broken neck is serious and requires immediate medical attention. If a person injures their spinal cord with the fracture, the injury can cause paralysis or death.
In many cases, however, people can recover from a broken neck with a brace, surgery, or other treatment.
After any neck injury, a person should receive prompt medical care. This will give them the best possible chance of healing and recovery.