A broken neck is also known as a cervical fracture, and it happens when one or more of the seven vertebrae in your neck are broken. A broken neck can result in a spinal cord injury, a catastrophic injury that leads to permanent paralysis. Even without injury to the spinal cord, these neck injuries are serious and may cause chronic pain, weakness, and disability.
If you have suffered a cervical spinal fracture, prompt treatment is critical to reduce the risk of more serious injury. If someone else’s negligence caused your injury, you may be entitled to compensation that can ensure you get the medical care you need.
Structure of the Cervical Spine
The vertebral column or spine is made up of 33 bones or vertebrae and is divided into five regions.
Each vertebra is labeled with a number and letter, which indicates the region and location as listed below:
- Cervical spine (neck): C1 to C7
- Thoracic spine (upper and middle back): T1 to T12
- Lumbar spine (lower back): L1 to L5
- Sacral spine (above the tailbone): S1 to S5, fused in adulthood
- Coccygeal spine (tailbone): Co1 to Co5, fused in adulthood
The coccyx or tailbone is unique as it’s made up of three to five (usually four) rudimentary vertebrae that fuse together. A common congenital anomaly known as sacralization happens when the L5 lumbar vertebra fuses to the sacrum. It affects anywhere from 1.7% to 21% of people. About 3-7% of people have a lumbarization when the S1 separates from the sacrum and the lumbar spine seems to have six, not five, vertebrae.
The cervical spine is comprised of seven vertebrae in the neck, starting with C1, also known as the atlas. This ring-shaped bone gives the skull support at the atlanto-occipital joint. The second vertebra, C2, is known as the axis, and it allows the atlas to pivot for a side-to-side motion of your head. Together, C1 and C2 make up the upper cervical spine. The remaining five vertebrae are called the subaxial cervical spine.
The vertebrae of the cervical spine are more mobile and flexible than the thoracic and lumbar regions, with a lighter load. This also increases the risk of spinal cord injury to the cervical spine.
Types of Cervical Fractures
A cervical fracture refers to a fracture of any of the vertebrae of the cervical spine. Some fractures are more common than others. The C3 is very rarely fractured. It accounts for less than 1% of cervical fractures.
C1 Fracture (Jefferson Fracture)
A C1 fracture is known as a Jefferson fracture or sometimes an atlas fracture. This type of fracture is known as a burst fracture because it happens when the vertebra is crushed in every direction. Burst fractures are more serious than compression fractures and increase the risk of spinal cord injury.
C1 fractures often happen while diving headfirst into a shallow body of water. About 50% of cases involve other cervical fractures, and about one-third are associated with a C2 fracture.
C2 Fracture (Hangman’s Fractures and Odontoid Fractures)
C2 fractures are the most common type of cervical fracture, especially among elderly people.
A C2 fracture can be divided into three subtypes:
- Hangman’s fracture occurs when the axis fractures on both sides
- Odontoid fractures (with three subtypes) involve a fracture in the odontoid, a peg-like portion of the bone
- Atypical C2 fractures
In people under 70, about 24% of C2 fractures are hangman’s fractures. In older adults, they account for just 5.5% of C2 fractures, with odontoid fractures accounting for 63% of breaks. Odontoid fractures of the C2 alone account for 10-15% of all cervical fractures. Sadly, they are injuries often missed after a simple fall.
A C2 fracture is usually a hyperextension injury that occurs when the neck is extended past its normal range. Unlike most cervical fractures, C2 fractures rarely cause spinal cord damage, but pieces of bone can move after the injury if it isn’t treated. At the time of injury, a hangman’s fracture actually increases space around the spinal cord without compressing it.
Traffic accidents, diving injuries, and sports injuries usually cause Hangman’s fractures. Odontoid C2 fractures are common injuries in elderly people who suffer a low-impact injury such as a fall. Because the lower cervical spine is stiffer, the upper cervical spine (C1 and C2) are more susceptible to injuries, especially in elderly people with lower bone density. Vitamin D deficiency and osteoporosis increase the risk of a C2 fracture.
Nearly 75% of all cervical fractures happen between C4 and C7, or the lower cervical spine. C5 is the most common level of a cervical fracture. Subluxation injuries, on the other hand, usually happen at the C5-C6 interspace. This happens when the vertebrae slip or slide out of place.
What Causes Cervical Fractures?
Cervical fractures usually require high-energy trauma or significant force. In elderly people or people at risk due to a structural anomaly or health condition, low-energy trauma is more likely to cause a broken neck.
The three most common causes of cervical spinal fractures are:
In a crash, a sudden and severe twist of the neck or a forceful blow to the neck or head while playing a sport can fracture a cervical vertebra.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of a Broken Neck?
A neck fracture can have serious and long-lasting effects. A fracture to one vertebra in the neck can increase the risk of fractures to other vertebrae or dislocation.
Vertebral fractures also frequently cause damage to the discs. A herniated disc can be painful, especially if it compresses a nearby nerve root.
The most common symptoms of a broken neck include:
- Pain in the neck that may spread to the arms or shoulders
- Swelling and bruising
- Reduced range of movement in the neck
- Inability to move your head
- Difficulty standing up or moving while lying down
- Poor balance
- Paralysis of the legs or arms
- Loss of sensation in the body
Pain after a cervical fracture can be severe, but it isn’t always. If the fracture did not cause damage to the spinal cord, pain, swelling, and reduced range of motion may be the extent of initial symptoms. Tingling, numbness, weakness, and pain that travels to the shoulders and arms is usually caused by nerve damage or a pinched nerve.
After a spinal fracture, you may have long-term or chronic pain and stiffness in the neck. Weakness, tingling, and numbness may be a chronic issue if the nerves were damaged. If the spinal cord is injured, a cervical fracture can result in permanent paralysis below the site of the injury.
Contact a San Antonio Personal Injury Lawyer for a Free Consultation
If you suffered a cervical fracture you believe was caused by someone else’s negligence, you may have the right to compensation through a personal injury claim.
An experienced San Antonio personal injury lawyer can help you understand your options, negotiate with insurance companies, and fight for the fair compensation you need. Contact George Salinas Injury Lawyers today at (210) 225-0909 for a free initial case review to discuss how we can help you.