At some point in your life, you may have used the phrase, “I almost broke my neck,” an idiom used to refer to coming close to significant injury. This past week sports fans around the world got a quick lesson in how a broken neck can really happen when they watched Austrian Olympic snowboarder Markus Schairer fall so hard during a quarterfinal run that his goggles flew off. With Schairer lying motionless on the side of the course, spectators knew that things had gone horribly wrong, yet he ended up getting back up and finishing the course. Shortly afterward word came back that he had suffered a broken neck.
To a layman, that sounds like a nearly fatal and certainly debilitating injury, but the truth is that a broken neck can mean any of several different types of specific damage. In Schairer’s case it meant that he had fractured his fifth cervical vertebrae, an injury from which he is expected to recover with little or no impact. Other types of broken neck can include a fracture of any of the seven bones that make up the cervical section of the spine, or multiples of those bones. It can include a chip off of a bone or a complete break. Where a break in one of these bones leaves the vertebrae out of its normal position, it has the potential of harming the spinal cord, and that is where the risk of paralysis or death becomes most significant.
As is true of each of the vertebrae in the back, the bones in the cervical spine are each assigned a number that is an indication of its location from the skull to the base of the neck. C-1 refers to the vertebrae that is closest to and connected to your skull, and the C-7 is located at the base of the neck. Damage to the vertebrae closest to the skull tends to present a greater risk of spinal cord or nerve injury, though much depends on whether the bones that are impacted are displaced. Injuries that allow people to walk (or snowboard) away are generally not as dangerous, though it is important to exercise care.
Treatment of a broken neck clearly depends upon the damage that is done. The first step is to have an X-ray or MRI done, but in cases where displacement and/or spinal cord damage has not occurred, a neck brace is usually prescribed. Use of this support helps diminish pain while allowing muscles and ligaments that have been strained to heal and recover. Physical therapy and pain medication is usually prescribed, though in more serious cases the person who has been injured is likely to undergo corrective surgery by a cervical spine specialist.
If you have injured your neck, your best next step is to seek a consultation with our spine specialty practice in New Jersey. We will carefully diagnose your injury and create a care protocol tailored for your specific needs.