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C1-C7 Fracture Sites  
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Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Definition  

A neck fracture is a break in one or more of the seven cervical bones. The vertebrae are the bones that make up the spine. The cervical vertebrae in the neck are labeled C1-C7. They protect the spinal cord, support the neck, and allow for movement.

It is important to recognize the possibility of a neck fracture.

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Causes  

A neck fracture is caused by severe trauma to the neck, which is strong enough to break the vertebrae. Trauma may be caused by:

  • Falls
  • Car, motorcycle, or pedestrian collisions
  • Diving into shallow water
  • Severe and sudden twist to the neck
  • Severe blows to the head or neck area
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Risk Factors  

Factors that may increase your risk of neck fracture include:

  • Falls from heights, such as a ladder, bike, or horse
  • Advancing age
  • Osteoporosis
  • Certain diseases or conditions that result in bone or mineral loss, such as abnormal or absent menstrual cycles, or post- menopause
  • Certain diseases and conditions that weaken bones, such as tumors or cysts
  • Decreased muscle mass
  • Playing certain sports that may result in neck fracture, such as football, rugby, or ice hockey
  • Not wearing your seatbelt or protective sports equipment
  • Head or other traumatic injury, such as severe chest trauma, pelvic or femur fractures
  • Violence
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Symptoms  

A neck fracture is very serious and can lead to paralysis or possibly death. A person with a neck injury should not be moved without competent medical care, which is needed immediately.

Neck fracture may cause:

  • Severe pain
  • Swelling and possible bruising
  • Tenderness
  • Decreased feeling in the arms or legs
  • Muscle weakness or paralysis of the arms or legs
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Diagnosis  

You will most likely be taken to a hospital. The doctor will ask about your symptoms, physical activity, and how the injury occurred. The doctor will examine the injured area and perform a complete neurological exam.

Imaging tests evaluate the spine and surrounding structures. These may include:

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Treatment  

Neck fractures are serious injuries that can lead to paralysis or death. Call for medical help right away.

Immobilize and Stabilize the Injury  

When there is a possibility of a neck fracture, immediate and complete immobilization of the head and neck area is necessary. Avoid excessive movement to prevent or minimize spinal cord injury. For athletes, it is recommended to keep the helmet and shoulder pads on while immobilizing the spine.

Once immobilized, you will be assessed for any other problems, such as secondary injuries, shock, or airway obstruction. Stabilizing your injury may include:

  • A breathing tube for a blocked airway
  • IV fluids
  • Admission to the hospital for monitoring

Intial Care  

Once you are stabilized and assessed, your course of treatment will depend on:

  • The severity of the fracture
  • Which of the cervical bones are broken
  • Which part of the cervical bones are broken
  • Whether there is temporary or permanent spinal cord or nerve injury

Treatment options for neck fracture include:

  • Neck brace or collar—Minor fractures can be treated with a neck brace or collar for up to 8 weeks. These devices will keep your neck in line while it heals.
  • Traction—Rigid braces or a halo vest worn for up to 12 weeks can be used to treat more severe or unstable fractures. Traction allows for minimal movement beyond what is necessary.
  • Surgery—Plates, screws, or wires may be needed to reconnect bone pieces and hold them in place. Surgery may also be needed to repair vertebrae, relieve pressure on the spinal cord, or remove any damaged vertebral discs.

Overall recovery time depends on whether or not you have any permanent injuries. Physical therapy and rehabilitation can last for months or years.

Hospitalization  

People with neck fractures usually need to stay in the hospital. Serious injuries may need to be watched in an intensive care unit. Some people with neck fractures need to have help breathing. A tube is inserted and mechanical ventilation is used to protect and assist breathing.

Medications  

You may need the following:

  • Pain medication