Broken Neck

A broken neck or cervical fracture is one of the most serious types of neck injuries. A broken neck happens when one or more cervical vertebrae are fractured, often in a car accident or fall. A broken neck isn’t just a fracture; it’s potentially a disruption to the very pathways your body uses to communicate movement and sensation.

Cervical fractures can result in reduced mobility, chronic pain, disability, and even permanent paralysis. These injuries often require a lengthy recovery, physical therapy, and sometimes surgical treatment. 

Overview of the Cervical Spine

Overview of the Cervical Spine

Before we explore cervical fractures, it’s essential to understand the framework they shatter. The cervical spine is the delicate yet resilient scaffolding responsible for supporting the head and facilitating its movement. It’s part of the larger vertebral column or spine. 

The spine has 33 vertebrae or bones, which are divided into five regions. Each vertebra has a number and letter indicating its location in the appropriate region. 

The five regions of the spine are: 

  • Cervical spine in the neck: C1 to C7
  • Thoracic spine in the upper and middle back: T1 to T12
  • Lumbar spine in the lower back: L1 to L5
  • Sacral spine just above the tailbone: S1 to S5
  • Coccygeal spine, also known as the tailbone or coccyx: Co1 to Co5

In some people, the S1 vertebra is separated from the fused portion of the sacrum. This is called lumbarization. A more common anomaly is sacralization, in which the L5 vertebra is fused with the sacrum. 

34 pairs of spinal nerves exit above or below the corresponding vertebrae. These nerves interact with the spinal cord to relay sensory and motor information and facilitate movement. 

Types of Cervical Fractures

A broken neck happens when any vertebra in the cervical spine is fractured. However, certain vertebrae are more likely to be fractured. The type of accident can also affect which vertebrae are at the greatest risk of injury. 

Fractures can be classified both by the location of the fracture and the type of damage to the vertebra itself. 

Common cervical fractures include: 

  • Burst fractures: Occur when the vertebra is crushed, sending bone fragments in every direction. These breaks have a high risk of causing a spinal cord injury and other complications. C1 fractures are burst fractures. 
  • Compression fractures: Occur when the vertebrae fracture as they’re compressed. These breaks usually happen in the thoracic spine of the upper back. 
  • Chance fractures or seatbelt fractures: Caused by flexion-distraction injuries, often in high-speed or head-on collisions. Multiple regions of the spine are injured due to rapid deceleration. This forces the spine to flex over the lap seatbelt, resulting in a horizontal fracture. Chance fractures have a high rate of concurrent internal organ injuries.

Below are common fractures based on the location in the cervical spine.

C1 Fractures (Atlas or Jefferson Fractures)

A C1 fracture is known as an atlas fracture or Jefferson fracture. These fractures are usually caused by axial loading or force that’s directed through the top of the head. In young people, a C1 fracture is a hallmark injury of diving into a shallow body of water. 

About 10-13% of cervical fractures are atlas fractures. These fractures require significant force in younger people, but elderly people can suffer a C1 fracture with low-energy trauma. Most C1 fractures are in people older than 50. 

Only one-third of Jefferson fractures involve the C1 vertebra alone. In 57% of cases, the C2 vertebra is also injured. About 15% of cases also involve fractures in the thoracic and/or lumbar spine. 

C2 Fractures (Odontoid and Hangman’s Fractures)

C2 fractures are very common, especially in older adults. 

There are three subtypes of C2 fractures: 

  • Hangman’s fracture 
  • Odontoid fractures 
  • Atypical C2 fractures 

Around 24% of C2 fractures in people younger than 70 are hangman’s fractures. Odontoid fractures make up 63% of cases in older adults, while hangman’s fractures are just 5.5% of breaks. 

About 10-15% of all cervical breaks are C2 odontoid fractures.

Other Cervical Fractures

About three-quarters of cervical fractures affect C4 to C7, the subaxial or lower cervical spine. C5 fractures are the most common types of fractures in the cervical spine. C3 fractures, on the other hand, are very rare. Less than 1% of neck fractures involve the C3. The C5/C6 interspace is a common site for subluxation, which happens when a vertebra slides out of place. 

What Causes a Broken Neck?

In healthy, younger people, a broken neck is typically caused by high-energy trauma. Older adults and people at risk due to a pre-existing condition or structural anomaly of the spine are likely to suffer a fracture in a low-energy accident. 

Most traumatic cervical fractures are caused by the following: 

  • Car accidents and other traffic collisions
  • Falls
  • Diving into shallow water
  • Sports injuries
  • Violence or assault

The incidence of cervical fractures peaks in the 20s to 30s and again in people 55 and over. In children under 15, cervical fractures are usually caused by motor vehicle collisions, sports injuries, and falls. In older adults, falls and non-traumatic injury are most likely to cause a broken neck. In other adults, traffic accidents are the leading cause of cervical spine fractures. 

Long-Term Consequences of a Cervical Fracture

Cervical spine fractures can be debilitating and have lasting consequences. These injuries are often destabilizing. This means the neck can no longer support the head or allow full range of motion. 

When a single vertebra is fractured, there is a higher risk of dislocation or fractures in other vertebrae. Depending on the location and type of break, the fracture may damage one or more spinal discs. Herniated discs are often painful and may even be disabling when they compress nerve roots. 

Between 10% and 50% of cervical spine fractures result in spinal cord injury. These injuries can be catastrophic and result in permanent paralysis or limited motion and function. 

Contact Our Dallas Personal Injury Lawyer for a Free Consultation

If you have suffered a broken neck in an accident and believe someone else was at fault, you can be entitled to compensation. This can help you get the medical treatment you need and preserve your quality of life.

At Jay Murray Personal Injury Lawyers, we understand the devastating impact a broken neck can have. We will fight on your behalf to hold the responsible party accountable and recover fair compensation. 

Contact our law office today by calling at (214) 855-1420 to schedule a free case review with a Dallas personal injury lawyer to explore your legal options and how we can help.