A cervical fracture is a break of one of the seven bones in the cervical spine (neck), that help support the head and connect it to the rest of the body. Most often, a cervical fracture occurs as a result of a severe trauma caused by a sports injury, fall, or vehicular accident. Cervical fractures not only happen during contact sports like football or wrestling, but may occur from a horseback riding fall, a skiing, surfing, or weight-lifting accident, or during diving. Cervical fractures are serious injuries because they may involve the spinal cord and can lead to loss of sensation, paralysis or even death.
Symptoms of a Cervical Fracture
Typically, a patient who suffers a cervical fracture experiences intense pain in the neck, shoulders and down the arm. Bruising and swelling usually occur as well, ordinarily at the back of the neck. There may also be numbness at the site of the injury or down the arm. In severe cases, the patient may suffer paralysis. In order to avoid complications, it is important for the neck to be immobilized until the injury can be diagnosed. The only exception to this is if the patient must be moved for immediate survival.
Diagnosis of a Cervical Fracture
In addition to X-rays of the area to determine the precise location and severity of the bone fracture, a CT or MRI scan is also necessary to determine whether soft tissue has been damaged as well. Treatment is predicated on the extent of injury, if any, to the spinal cord, as well as on the nature of the cervical fracture.
Treatment of a Cervical Fracture
Treatment for a cervical fracture depends on the severity of the break. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) are helpful in relieving pain. If necessary, stronger pain medication will be prescribed. Minor fractures can often be treated with a cervical collar (neck brace) that helps keep the bone in place while the injury heals. This usually takes about 6 weeks. For more serious injuries, rigid braces, such as a Minerva cast, made of plaster of Paris, may be used for several months. Some cases may require traction. In the most severe situations, internal fixation may be required to provide neck stability. This necessitates surgical intervention to fuse discs. Whatever treatment is required is typically followed by a period of physical therapy to increase comfort and range of motion.
Prevention of Cervical Fractures
While not all injuries can be prevented, there are ways to minimize the risk of a cervical fracture. Wearing a seatbelt lessens the risk of cervical injury in a vehicular accident. Wearing protective gear during activities that involve danger of bruising physical contact or falling also lessons the danger of cervical injury. Swimming and diving, which involve no protective gear, should always be engaged in with caution, in areas in which the environment has been carefully assessed. Children engaging in such activities should always be well-supervised.
At a Glance
Dr. Federico Girardi MD
- Triple fellowship-trained spinal surgeon
- Performs over 400 spinal surgeries per year
- Professor of orthopedic surgery at Cornell University
- Learn more