The seven bones in the neck are the cervical vertebrae. They support the head and connect it to the shoulders and body. A fracture, or break, in one of the cervical vertebrae is commonly called a broken neck.
Cervical fractures usually result from high-energy trauma, such as automobile crashes or falls. Athletes are also at risk. A cervical fracture can occur if:
- A football player “spears” an opponent with his head.
- An ice hockey player is struck from behind and rams into the boards.
- A gymnast misses the high bar during a release move and falls.
- A diver strikes the bottom of a shallow pool.
Any injury to the vertebrae can have serious consequences because the spinal cord, the central nervous system’s connection between the brain and the body, runs through the center of the vertebrae. Damage to the spinal cord can result in paralysis or death. Injury to the spinal cord at the level of the cervical spine can lead to temporary or permanent paralysis of the entire body from the neck down.
Possible Treatment Options
Treatment will depend on which of the seven cervical vertebrae are damaged and the kind of fracture sustained. A minor compression fracture can be treated with a cervical brace worn for 6 to 8 weeks until the bone heals. A more complex or extensive fracture may require traction, surgery, 2 to 3 months in a rigid cast, or a combination of these treatments.