Also known as a neck fracture or a broken neck, a cervical fracture occurs when one more of your cervical vertebrae break. There are seven vertebrae in the neck region of your spine. These are the bones that support your head and provide it with its range of motion. Because the spine protects your spinal cord a cervical fracture can cause it to be damaged, leading to temporary or permanent paralysis.
The most common sources of a fracture are diving into the shallow end of a pool, a high-energy trauma such as an accident, fall or whiplash, a sudden and severe twisting of the neck or impact to the head or neck area.
Several factors can increase the risk of a cervical fracture, including aging, having weak neck muscles, not wearing a seat restraint, the onset of osteoporosis and contact sports.
If you incur a cervical fracture, the symptoms could be immediate and telling. These include severe pain when moving your neck or not being able to move your neck at all, bruising and swelling at the back of the neck, losing feeling or have pinprick-like pain in your arms or legs, weakness in the muscles or paralysis of your arms or legs or pain that spreads from your neck to your shoulders.
If you’ve suffered an injury to your neck or are experiencing any of these symptoms, you’ll want to see your doctor immediately. Your doctor will conduct a series of diagnostic tests, which may include cervical spine x-rays, CT scan and an MRI.
The type of treatment you will receive depends on the type and severity of the injury. Minor fractures may require the immobilization of your head using a halo brace, Philadelphia collar or soft collar.
Severe fractures of the vertebrae will require surgery, which can range from an anterior cervical discectomy where damaged discs are removed to relieve pressure on the spinal cord, internal fixation where a metal plate is used to hold the bones together while they heal, or traction. Post care may include wearing a brace for a period of time to allow the bones to reset and heal properly. This may be followed by physical therapy to strengthen neck muscles after a period of immobility.