Broken Neck — Types and Treatments

Neck collars are often worn for broken neck and other cervical issues.
Neck collars are often worn for broken neck and other cervical issues. Christopher Robbins/Photodisc/Getty Images

Broken Neck

Most people think a broken neck is a catastrophic injury resulting in paralysis. While this is true in far too many cases, the severity of this injury can actually range from mild to fatal. Given that, what is the definition of a broken neck?  

A broken neck is defined as a fracture in one or more of the seven vertebrae that make up the neck. 

Breaks or fractures in neck bones can be caused by any number of things from trauma, car accidents, falls, or sports injuries.

Often the location and nature of the break is determined by the position of the head at the time of impact, as well as the direction of the force that hits the neck.

Broken Neck due to Trauma

Serious accidents or other trauma may result in a complex neck fracture that requires immediate medical attention; this is order to avoid death or further injury. A person with a serious neck injury needs to be immobilized, and 911 should be called as soon as possible.

Immobilization is important because if the person who sustained the injury does have a broken neck, moving them can make matters much worse. This injury often, but not always, results in paralysis. When someone who does not have the proper training moves or otherwise touches a physically traumatized person, it could increase the risk of paralysis. Because of this, you should assume that any person who has sustained trauma  in your environment does indeed have a serious neck injury, and follow Red Cross first aid guidelines accordingly.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons says that a person who had had neck trauma should remain immobilized until they can receive medical attention.

Keep in mind that shock often accompanies trauma. About.com's First Aid Expert, Rod Brouhard, has a great article on treating shock.

Osteoporosis-Related Neck Fracture

Elderly people, especially those with osteoporosis, are at a greater risk for a minor neck fractures.

Experts say that spinal fractures in these patients are directly related to the amount of bone they've lost. Because osteoporotic bone is very fragile, even common activities and minor impacts can lead to neck fracture. Generally, such breaks are tiny and are called microfractures.

Treatment for Neck Fractures

Treatment possibilities for spinal fractures include wearing a brace called a Halo device. A Halo device consists of a vest connected to a metal ring that is worn around the head. The metal ring is attached by screws that are inserted into the skull. This helps stabilize the bone and allow it to mend.

More complex neck fractures will likely require major surgery and can result in complete or incomplete paralysis. If surgery is needed, your doctor will probably insert plates, screws and/or cages into the bones.

Preventing a Broken Neck

Changes in lifestyle may help prevent osteoporosis-related neck fractures. Two good strategies that many people employ are:  Weight-bearing exercise, such as strength training, and taking your calcium and vitamin D every day.

You doctor may be able to prescribe bone-building medication as well.

As for fractures from trauma, that old saying "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" may be applicable.

For example, it's far simpler to remember to fasten your seat belt, to not dive into a shallow pool or other body of water, or wear your helmet when cycling, than it is to adjust to living the rest of your life in a wheelchair.

Neck fractures are nothing to mess around with, so I recommend not only familiarizing yourself with the ways you can prevent a broken neck, but putting them into practice, as well.

Sources:

AAOS. Cervical Fracture. Dec. 2013 

Lomoschitz, FM., et. al. Cervical Spine Injuries in Patient 65 Years Old and Older: Epidemiologic Analysis Regarding the Effects of Age and Injury Mechanism on Distribution, Type and Stability of Injuries. March 2002.

Moira Davenport, M. MD. Fracture, Cervical Spine. eMedicine. Aug 2013. 

Ringe J.D. The effect of Vitamin D on falls and fractures. Scand J Clin Lab Invest Suppl. 2012.

Vaccaro, A. Spine: Core Knowledge in Orthopaedics. Elsevier Mosby. Philadelphia. 2005.

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