Neck Injuries

The thought of serious neck injury is terrifying – and rightly so. A break (fracture) or dislocation in the cervical region of the spine can be potentially fatal or catastrophically disabling. Thankfully, though, few neck injuries are life-threatening.

Fracture and Dislocation

Learning that somebody has broken or dislocated their neck is always shocking news. Fractures an dislocations usually happen in accidents, typically in an automobile crash or as a result of sports mishap.

Any injury in which this type of damage is even a remote possibility should be treated as an emergency and immediate medical help should be called. On no account should the person be moved unless there is imminent, and potentially fatal threat from another source.

What Happens in Neck Fracture and Dislocation?

A fracture means a break in the bone, while dislocation involves displacement of the vertebrae out of their normal position. The effects can be similar. Injury to the spinal cord can cause paralysis or death. Damage to the spinal cord in the neck can lead t paralysis.

What Should be Done for Neck Fracture and Dislocation?

In all cases of serious trauma to the neck, the body is immobilised until X-rays have been taken and the person has been assessed by a doctor. Treatment depends on which of the seven cervical vertebrae are damaged and in what way.

For a minor compression fracture, a cervical brace worn for a couple of months may be adequate. A more complex or extensive fracture may need traction and surgery to stabilise the damaged area, which may entail months in a rigid cast, or a mix of these treatments.

“Burners” and “Stingers”

If you’ve played contact sports and suffered a burner or a stinger, you remember it. The pain shoots from the shoulder to the hand “like an electric shock or lightning bolt down the arm”. A burner or stinger is an injury to the nerve supply to the upper arm, either at the neck or shoulder, often following a fall onto the head – for example, following a tackle in football.

What Happens?

When the head is forced sideways and downward, it bends the neck and pinches the surrounding nerves. As a result, you may feel numbness or weakness in the arm and possibly a feeling of warmth.

Usually the symptoms subside quickly – within seconds or minutes – but in up to 10 percent of cases, the unpleasant sensations can last hours, days, or longer.

What Should be Done?

You should immediately get checked by a doctor. An examination will confirm the type of injury. If the symptoms pass, you will probably need no treatment. But you may need further medical attention if you experience weakness lasting more than a few days, neck pain, symptoms in both arms, or if you have a history of recurrent stingers or burners. Having a narrow spinal canal – spinal stenosis – may make you more prone to burners and stingers.


When your head is jerked violently and unexpectedly backward or forward – typically in a car accident or during contact sports – the resulting injury is known as whiplash. It can also be called cervical sprain (or strain) or hyperextension injury.

Whiplash Injury
Whiplash Injury

What Happens in a Whiplash Injury?

The pain is caused by the soft tissues (muscles, tendons, and ligaments) of the neck being forced to the very limit of their range of motion. If the ligaments are torn, there will be internal bleeding bleeding between them and the vertebrae. You may start to feel pain and experience stiffness in the neck within minutes or it make take several hours for symptoms to be felt. Further symptoms that result from whiplash may include neck spasms, dizziness, and headache.

What Should be Done?

It’s important to seek medical help as soon as possible. Modern surgical treatment with internal fixation (screws, plates, rods) has eliminated the need for cast treatment in all but the most unusual circumstances. A plastic collar may be used for a short period.

Subject to your doctor’s advice, anti-inflammatories and physiotherapy may help relieve discomfort in the early stages the recovery process.

You can expect a full recovery within a couple of weeks, although some people have problems for longer. Research suggests that the sooner the symptoms appear after the injury, the longer they are likely to last. It also suggests that the average recovery time for a whiplash injury without any other associated symptoms is 32 days. In a study of 2,627 participants, one in eight had not recovered six months later.

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