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Neck or Spine Fractures (Broken Neck or Spine)

The spine stretches from the base of the skull to the tailbone. It's composed of 33 bones (vertebrae) that help support the body. These bones also protect the spinal cord, the important branch of your nervous system that carries messages from the brain to the body. A broken (fractured) bone in the neck or spine can be very serious. In some cases it can lead to paralysis or death. Emergency care is crucial.

Keep neck and spine injuries still

Do not move a person with a neck or spine injury. The person should lie still and wait for an emergency medical team. It can help for someone to gently hold the person's head to keep it from moving until help arrives.

When to go to the emergency room (ER)

If you come upon a person with a neck or spine injury, call for emergency help right away. Wait for emergency services personnel to arrive and take over. A  person with a neck or spinal injury may have these symptoms may include:

  • Unconsciousness

  • Severe back or neck pain

  • Bruising and swelling over the neck or back

  • Tingling or loss of feeling in the hands or feet

  • Loss of bowel or bladder function

  • Loss of feeling and movement below the level of injury

  • Weakness or inability to move arms or legs

What to expect in the ER

  • The injured person may be placed on a  spine board that prevents movement for examination.

  • X-rays of the neck and/or spine may be taken 

  • A computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan may be done. These provide more detailed images of the structures in the neck and back.

  • Medication may be given to lessen pain.

Treatment

The goal of treatment is to return the neck or spine to its normal position.

  • A minor neck fracture or simple spine fracture may be treated with a neck brace for 6 to 8 weeks until the bone heals.

  • Severe or complex fractures often need surgery. In that case, a bone specialist (orthopaedic surgeon) or nerve specialist (neurosurgeon) may be needed.

Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Nelson, Gail A., MS, APRN, BC
Last Review Date: 7/17/2013
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