It only takes a split second to break your neck. This is a frightening injury that requires immediate medical attention. You might even wonder about the broken neck survival rate. In this article, you’ll learn more about the causes, symptoms and treatments of the condition.

What Is A Broken Neck?

A cervical fracture, or neck fracture, can range from mild to life-threatening.  Although many people equate a broken neck with paralysis, that’s not always the case.

According to the USC Spine Center, about half of the spinal column injuries that happen in the U.S. every year are cervical fractures. Most spinal cord and spinal column injuries befall males between the ages of 15 and 24.

Any of the seven cervical vertebrae between the skull and the upper back can be fractured. Because the vertebrae protect the spinal cord, an injury to the bones can damage the nerves and affect other organs.

Depending on the severity of the trauma, the neck can break in one or several places. The location of the fracture is based on the direction of the impact and the position of the head at the time of the injury.

What Causes Your Neck To Break?

Neck fractures are different than back injuries that are brought on by repetitive activities. When you break your neck, it usually happens quickly and due to a sharp impact.

One of the most common causes of this condition is hitting a solid surface head first. This can happen when you dive into shallow water or fall into the ground while playing sports. It doesn’t have to occur after a fall from a great height.

The USC Spine Center explains that you can also break your neck by twisting it rapidly. This is most likely to occur because of violence or during a motor vehicle accident.

If the spinal bones crack during the trauma, you develop a fracture. Sometimes, the ligaments become damaged, allowing the bones to dislocate. Although this can also be serious, it is not considered to be a break.

Elderly people can develop compression fractures if they have osteoporosis. They are at a greater risk for injury if they have severe bone loss. Even regular activities can contribute to a neck fracture in these cases.

These cracks tend to be small. They are often referred to as microfractures. They don’t pose a major threat to the spinal cord.

Symptoms Of A Cervical Fracture

Although breaking your neck sounds incredibly painful, some patients don’t notice the pain right away. If they do, it usually happens on impact. Because the spinal cord is responsible for transmitting messages throughout the body, someone with a cervical fracture might feel pain in other areas.

The most common symptoms of a broken neck are:

  • Stiffness
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Localized neck pain
  • Visible swelling and bruising
  • Tenderness

Spinal cord damage can cause paralysis, numbness or weakness. It can also affect respiration. Some people who suffer from this injury report feeling unable to breathe or take a deep inhale.

X-rays may be the best way to diagnose this condition. If symptoms of a fracture are present but no break is seen in an X-ray, a CT scan may be ordered. Ligament damage and instability can bring about symptoms that are similar to those of a cervical fracture.

Treatment For A Broken Neck

If you suspect that someone’s neck is broken, you should never move the victim. Treat the injury as a fracture until you can prove that it is not.

Many people who are in motor vehicle accidents don’t notice the extent of the pain until later. They may avoid getting examined by a physician. The mildness of their symptoms may convince a care provider not to order diagnostic imaging. If the neck has been broken, treating it right away can prevent more serious problems from developing.

VeryWell explains the steps to take if you are around someone who experiences a neck injury. The first thing you should do is call 911. Do not move the individual unless their position puts them in immediate and serious danger.

If someone is choking on vomit or blood, you might need to roll them over. If you do, treat the body and head as one unit. You will likely need assistance from other people to move someone with a neck injury.

When emergency workers arrive, they will be able to move the patient in a controlled manner to avoid further injury. They will typically use a spinal board and collar to immobilize the individual as he or she is transported to the hospital.

Treatment options for a cervical fracture may or may not involve surgery. If the trauma is severe, is a puncture wound or has left the victim unstable, surgery may be the only option.

Medical professionals will also decide on the best type of treatment based on which area of the cervical spine is affected. Some treatment options include:

  • A cervical brace
  • Traction
  • Surgery
  • A rigid cast

Someone with a compression fracture may heal well after being in a neck brace for several weeks. More severe injuries may require more invasive treatment.

Pins, screws, plates and cages can be inserted into the bones to keep them immobile while the patient heals. The goal of treatment is to uphold or improve neurological function, stabilize the area and reduce pain. Sometimes, bone fragments must be removed from the spinal cord to improve the individual’s chances of recovery.

Preventing Broken Vertebrae In Neck

Some precautions can be taken to prevent this type of injury. Changing your lifestyle now can help reduce your risk of osteoporosis as you age. Consuming calcium and vitamin D may lower your likelihood of developing the degenerative bone disease. Doing weight-bearing exercises also helps keep you strong.

Preventing traumatic injury may be more challenging. Still, you can wear your seatbelt when you’re in a car. You can avoid diving into shallow water. You can protect yourself with a helmet when you’re playing sports.

If you do suspect that you or someone you know has a neck fracture, see a physician immediately. It’s better to be cautious than to mess around with such a delicate situation.

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