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What is a Broken Neck?

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Updated June 10, 2014

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

Question: What is a Broken Neck?
Answer:

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

Fractures of the neck bones are caused by trauma, car accidents, falls, and 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.

Neck Fracture from Trauma

Serious accidents or other trauma may result in a complex neck fracture requiring immediate medical attention in order to avoid death or further injury. A victim with a neck injury needs to be immobilized, and someone should call 911 as soon as possible. If there is a fracture, moving the patient may create (or worsen) paralysis. Because of this, you should assume that any victim of trauma has a serious neck injury and follow Red Cross first aid guidelines accordingly.

Osteoporosis-Related Neck Fracture

Elderly people, especially those with osteoporosis, are at a greater risk for neck fractures. Experts say that spinal fracture is directly related to the amount of bone loss in a patient. Because osteoporotic bone is very fragile, common activities and minor impacts may create tiny breaks called microfractures. If you've had a fall, you should get your neck checked even if you are not experiencing pain.

Treatment for Neck Fractures

Treatment possibilities for spinal fractures include wearing a brace called a Halo device. This consists of a vest connected to a metal ring that is worn around the head and 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, the doctor will probably insert plates, screws and/or cages into the bones.

Preventing a Broken Neck

Lifestyle factors can help prevent osteoporosis-related neck fractures. Two good strategies are incorporating weight-bearing exercise, such as strength training, and making sure you take 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" is very applicable. It is far simpler to remember to fasten your seat belt or wear your helmet 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 familiarizing yourself with the ways you can prevent a broken neck and putting them into practice.

Sources:

Moira Davenport, M. MD. Fracture, Cervical Spine. eMedicine. Last Updated: Oct. 30 2009. Accessed: Jan 17 10.

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.

AAOS. Cervical Fracture. Aug 07. Accessed Jan. 17 10. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00414&return_link=0

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

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