A broken cervical vertebra is commonly known as a broken neck. It may also be called a cervical fracture.

A broken neck can be severe and even life-threatening. This is because the cervical vertebrae help protect the delicate spinal cord and nerves. If there is damage to the spinal cord or nerves, it can cause paralysis or death.

However, if the spinal cord is not damaged, a person may recover from a broken neck with noninvasive care, such as wearing a neck brace or cervical collar.

A doctor will diagnose the severity of the broken neck according to which vertebrae have broken.

Whether serious or minor, a broken neck or any neck injury requires immediate medical attention.


A broken neck may happen when a person experiences sudden or hard trauma to the neck or head. This may occur during sports or other physical activity or as the result of an accident or serious fall.

Some other causes of a broken neck include:

  • automobile, motorcycle, or bike accidents
  • falls, especially from ladders, roofs, and horseback
  • diving into a shallow pool or body of water
  • falling or hitting an object when skiing, sledding, skateboarding, or surfing
  • slamming the head during contact sports, such as football, soccer, hockey, or martial arts
  • falling during acrobatic activities, such as cheer-leading, gymnastics, or using a trampoline


Often, a broken neck will cause severe pain and tenderness in the neck pain immediately after an accident or fall. Other symptoms include:

  • tingling or numbness in any area of the body
  • pain that moves from the neck down to the shoulders or arms
  • inability to move some or all of the body
  • swelling or bruising of the neck
  • trouble with walking or balance
  • difficulty breathing


A broken neck is a medical emergency. But it is not always possible to know whether the injury is a break, sprain, or strain without a doctors expertise and certain medical tests.

To diagnose a broken neck, doctors may perform the following tests:

  • A full neurological exam: A doctor looks for physical signs of spinal cord damage.
  • An X-ray: This allows doctors to view the cervical vertebrae and identify cracks or fractures.
  • Computed tomography scan (CT or CAT scan): This test provides a detailed view of the spinal cord and the structures surrounding it.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This test uses powerful magnets to produce 3D images of the spine, nerves, and other body structures.


Treatment for a broken neck varies widely. A doctor will base their decision on:

  • which of the cervical vertebrae has broken
  • the severity of the fracture
  • whether the bones have dislocated
  • whether there is a spinal cord injury

Possible treatment options include:

Cervical braces :

Doctors may treat a minor compression fracture in one vertebra with a cervical or neck brace. A person may need to wear the brace for several weeks or months. They may also need pain medicine, either prescription or over-the-counter (OTC).

Traction :

Traction involves using a device that restricts the movement of the head and neck more than a brace does. It may include weights and pulleys to put the bones in the right position.

A halo vest is a traction device that consists of a hard vest and a ring (halo) around the head. The vest portion connects to the halo with rods. Doctors attach the halo to the skull with special screws.

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