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A broken neck is a fracture of one of the 7 cervical vertebrae between the skull and the upper back and shoulders. A fracture to this area is a serious injury as the vertebrae protect the spinal cord which if damaged as a result can cause paralysis or even death.
Symptoms of a Broken Neck
The symptoms of a broken neck vary considerably from mild symptoms to being a fatal condition. The only consistent symptom is instant pain from a traumatic event and in some cases, this may not be a severe pain.
A broken neck is caused by a sudden force or impact on the head or neck. A common example is landing on the head. This doesn't have to be from a great height, it may be from a rugby tackle or a dive into shallow water. Car accidents are another of the more common causes of a neck fracture.
The seriousness of the injury depends on a number of factors, including which part of the vertebrae is injured, how severe the fracture is, if there is a displaced piece of bone and how high up the spine the injury is located.
All neck injuries should be treated as a neck fracture until this can be ruled out. This basically means keeping the head and neck still to avoid movement of the fracture which could injure the spinal cord. This is achieved using a spinal board and collar.
If the spinal cord is damaged as a result of the fracture, then neurological symptoms occur. In many cases this is paralysis. Due to the high level of the injury, the patient with paralysis from a neck injury will not be able to move their arms or legs, this is known as quadriplegia. If damage occurs above the level of the fifth cervical vertebrae (C5) then other functions such as breathing may also be affected.
Following a traumatic injury to the head or neck, the individual should be treated as though they have a broken neck, until an X-ray (or other form of medical imaging) confirms that they do not. This means that anyone with a suspected broken neck should not be moved unless absolutely necessary (i.e. they are in danger if they stay where they are e.g. in a burning car). If possible the patient should not be moved until the emergency services arrive. They will be able to move the patient in a controlled way to avoid causing further damage. A spinal board and collar will also be used to keep them still as they are transported to hospital.
If it is 100% necessary to move the patient, the head and neck must be supported throughout and should be kept in the same position, do not try to straighten or twist the neck, even if at an awkward angle.
Once at the hospital the patient will undergo a number of tests to determine if there is a fracture present. If there is, this will require surgery to fix the bones, using plates or screws.
If no fracture is present, the neck will be thoroughly checked for any other injuries before the patient is allowed to move it.