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Spinal Cord Injury First Aid

What to Do in a Neck Emergency


Updated June 26, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

*Note - This article does NOT cover everything you need to know about neck or spinal cord injury. Any information about medical conditions resulting from trauma to your spine contained in this article are for general overview purposes only.

Spinal cord injury can result from trauma or injury to the neck.  But if someone in your environment sustains a neck injury - or at least you think they do - at first, you may not know how serious the damage is.  

Related:  Grades of Neck Sprain

For this reason it is a good idea to play it safe.  Assume the worst when an injury occurs, and treat the person as though they have a very serious - or even life threatening - injury. 

What to Do - Or, Not to Do

  • If you are around when a person has an accident or other trauma that may affect their neck, the first thing to do is call 911 for life support and help.
  • Do not move the person, especially the head or neck unless failure to do so presents an immediate threat or urgent danger.

Exceptions to Immobility

You can move a person with a possible neck injury when:
  • Not moving them would be an immediate threat to their life.
  • They are vomiting.
  • They are choking on blood.
  • You need to check for breathing and/or pulse so you can determine if they need CPR. (See CPR below.)

Related: First Aid for Cervical Spine Injury by About.com First Aid Expert, Rod Brouhard

If you absolutely have to move a person you suspect has a serious neck or spinal cord injury, keep their head and neck immobile and move their entire body as one unit. Do the same if you need to roll them over. To roll a victim over, you will need at least two people -- one at the victim's head and one at the feet.

CPR: Resuscitation

Knowing how to administer CPR properly is crucial to reacting productively in a emergency situation.  Without this skill set, hopes of a good outcome for the person with the injury diminishes. Correctly administered CPR may make the difference between life and death.

The Red Cross offers certifying courses in CPR, as well as in first aid.

Below are a few tips that may help you determine the need for CPR.  When it is called for, it's best if someone with CPR certification is the one to take care of the injured or traumatized person until trained emergency medical personnel arrive on the scene.

First, check the person's breathing:

  • Position your cheek close to the victim's nose and mouth, look toward victim's chest.
  • Look, listen and feel for breathing for 5 to 10 seconds.

Check pulse (circulation).

  • Check for carotid pulse by feeling for 5 to 10 seconds at side of victim's neck.

After checking breathing and pulse, determine if CPR is necessary. DO NOT NOT LIFT VICTIM'S HEAD BACK WHEN OPENING THEIR AIRWAY TO ADMINISTER CPR. Instead open the jaw by placing fingers on either side.

*Note - This article does NOT cover everything you need to know to safely respond to an emergency requiring CPR administration. GET CPR CERTIFIED!

Learn more about traumatic spinal cord injury.


Author's Notes taken from Red Cross Adult CPR/AED course. Madison, WI. March 2014.

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