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A broken neck is a very rare and very dangerous sporting injury. A spinal injury of this nature can occur in a number of sports and can be very serious, sometimes resulting in paralysis from the neck down or even death.
The sufferer will experience neck pain which may or may not be severe, swelling, decreased sensation in the limbs and muscle weakness. A suspected neck fracture is a medical emergency, and the patient should not be moved or put into a neck support until they have undergone a full medical examination, which will include an x-ray or scan.
The neck consists of seven cervical vertebrae, any of which can fracture. A fractured cervical vertebra is known as a broken neck. It is usually caused by a blow to the head — perhaps in a car accident or as a result of a fall or a sporting injury.
An injury to the cervical vertebrae is potentially very serious because the vertebrae protect the spinal cord, which runs through them to the brain.
All neck pain following a trauma should be treated as serious until the injury has been assessed by a medical professional. If one of the neck vertebrae has been fractured, the prognosis is best if it is one of the lower vertebrae that has been affected.
When the cervical fracture is in one of the vertebrae at the top of the spine, the prognosis is generally much worse. If the spinal cord has been damaged, the injured person will not be able to move their limbs and may be unconscious and have breathing difficulties.
Because of the possibility of serious consequences, it is essential that the patient is not moved until fully qualified medical professionals can treat them.
Initially, when a broken neck is suspected, specialised medical personnel will immobilise the neck in order to protect the spinal cord from further damage. Treatment will depend upon which vertebra has been fractured and the type of damage that has been sustained. For a minor compression fracture the patient will need to wear a neck brace for six to eight weeks. A more complex fracture may require traction, neck immobilisation or surgery. The patient is likely to be immobilised for a period of eight to twelve weeks. If surgery is necessary, the broken fractures of the vertebrae will be screwed together. The patient may also have to wear a neck plaster cast.
Once the neck has healed, the patient may wear a neck support for warmth and protection and to alleviate neck pain. They may also need a course of physiotherapy.