A Broken Neck - What Happens?

When an injury occurs in the neck area of the spine, and the individual vertebrae become fractured or dislocated, the neck can be described as broken.

The neck area of the spine is referred to as the cervical area. Cervical vertebrae (neck bones) are the top 7 bones in the spinal column. These top 7 bones form the top part of our "backbone" and they also serve to protect the spinal cord from injury. If the vertebrae are broken or severely dislocated, but the spinal cord is unharmed, then no neurological problems result. People with this type of injury are treated very carefully while the bones heal to avoid damage to the spinal cord.

If the spinal cord is bruised or partially damaged due to swelling or laceration, then quadriplegia or other neurological problems may occur. If the spinal cord is severely injured and this injury is at or above the fifth cervical vertebra (C5), then breathing may be effected and the person may die from asphyxiation. In order to help someone breath, a hole is cut into the windpipe (trachea), and a tube inserted which is connected to a ventilator to supply the lungs with oxygen.

The portion of the cord that controls breathing via the diaphragm is about C3 through C5. If the damage is below C6, then paralysis may occur, but breathing would be left intact although at a reduced capacity.

However, if the cord is severely injured or transected (cut or torn in half), there is sudden loss of nerve supply to the entire body, including the heart and blood vessels. The victim may suffer a sudden and profound drop in blood pressure (BP) This is called "spinal shock."

If you think someone could possibly be suffering a spinal injury, DO NOT attempt to move the injured person even a little bit, unless it is absolutely necessary (like getting someone out of a burning car).

If you are in doubt about whether a person has a spinal injury, assume that he or she DOES have one.

First Aid

The main goal is to keep the person immobile and safe until medical help arrives.

  1. You or someone else should call paramedics.
  2. Hold the person's head and neck in the position in which they were found.
  3. DO NOT attempt to reposition the neck.
  4. Do not allow the neck to bend or twist.

If the Person is Unresponsive

  1. Check the person's breathing and circulation.
  2. If necessary, begin rescue breathing and CPR.
  3. DO NOT tilt the head back when attempting to open the airway.
  4. Instead, place your fingers on the jaw on each side of the head.
  5. Lift the jaw forward.

If You Need to Roll the Person

Do not roll the person over unless the person is vomiting or choking on blood, or you need to check for breathing.

  1. Two people are needed.
  2. One person should be stationed at the head, the other at the person's side.
  3. Keep the person's head, neck, and back in line with each other while you roll him or her onto one side.

Do Not

DO NOT bend, twist, or lift the person's head or body.
DO NOT attempt to move the person before medical help arrives unless it is absolutely necessary.
DO NOT remove a helmet if a spinal injury is suspected.

  • Diagram showing a broken neck and how it results in Quadriplegia, otherwise known as Tetraplegia.