The bones in the neck are called the cervical vertebrae. These bones support the head and connect the shoulders and the head to the body. A fracture of one of the cervical vertebrae is often called a broken neck.
Cervical fractures are most common with associated high-energy trauma—as in automobile crashes, high impact sports or falls. The impact and/or twisting of the neck that occurs in a millisecond during the trauma can cause the spine bones to crack or ligaments to rupture, or both. Any injury to the vertebrae can have severe consequences because the spinal cord runs through the center of the vertebrae. The spinal cord acts as the central nervous system’s connection between the brain and the body. Damage to the spinal cord can result in paralysis or death.
In a trauma situation, the neck will be immobilized until x-rays are taken and reviewed by a doctor. Emergency response will always assume that an unconscious person who’s suffered severe trauma has a neck injury, and respond accordingly.
Patients with cervical fractures usually have significant, localized neck pain and stiffness; however, patients with other injuries may not notice the pain of a neck injury due to more severe pain elsewhere. Patients with neurologic compression associated with a neck injury usually present with numbness or weakness in the arms and legs. Cervical fractures can also affect the patient’s ability to breathe.
Improvements in athletic equipment and rule changes have drastically reduced the number of sports-related cervical fractures over the last two decades. You can protect yourself in many ways, and lower the risks of cervical injury. You should always wear a seatbelt when you are in an automobile. Do not attempt to dive into shallow areas in the pool, and make sure young people are monitored when swimming and diving. Always wear the proper protective equipment for your sport, and follow the safety recommendations of athletic boards and your coaches. You should always have a spotter and proper cushioning mats when participating in sports like gymnastics or when weight lifting.