A neck fracture is a serious condition that requires medical attention as soon as possible. If left unattended, you risk complications that could become life-threatening. While you might think that a neck fracture will cause obvious neck pain and other symptoms, sometimes the shock and stress of getting into an accident can mask symptoms of a car accident injury.
If you get into a car accident and hurt your head, neck, or back, you want to get checked out by a car accident doctor right away to rule out serious, potentially life-threatening injuries like a neck fracture. Here’s what to know about undiagnosed neck fractures and what you can do to avoid a delayed diagnosis and unnecessary complications.
What Is a Neck Fracture?
The spine begins at the base of your skull and runs through your neck and back. The top part of the spine in the neck is known as the cervical spine. The cervical spine includes seven vertebrae, identified as C1 through C7, and these are separated by spinal discs. Spinal discs provide cushion and support for vertebrae so that they don’t grind against each other and also act as shock absorbers for everyday movements and activities. Damage to your cervical spine can impact one or more of these vertebrae, the spinal discs, and even surrounding soft tissues. A neck fracture refers to a specific type of injury that impacts one or more vertebrae. Vertebrae in the cervical spine are thick bones in a cylindrical shape, and the nerves that run through the cervical spine control movements in your upper body. A fracture is the medical term for a broken bone. Thus, a neck fracture refers to a broken vertebra in your neck.
Common Causes of a Neck Fracture
The most common causes of a fracture of one or more vertebrae in your neck are falls, car accidents, or violence. A slip and fall can cause you to bump your head or spine and cause serious damage. Car accidents happen every day and can cause a wide range of car accident injuries, including severe, life-threatening injuries. It is possible to sustain a neck fracture in a car accident, especially from the sudden force of impact on your body when two or more vehicles collide. A hard or sudden twist to your head and neck can cause a break in your cervical spine. Violence against another person or toward children can also lead to a neck fracture. Sports injuries can also lead to neck fractures, including in high-contact sports like football and hockey. In some cases, medical conditions like osteoporosis or cancer can weaken your bone density and put you at greater risk for a neck fracture. No matter how you suffer a neck fracture, the trauma can be scary and should be taken very seriously.
Types of Neck Fractures
A fracture to the cervical spine is typically categorized into three different categories or types of broken bones: a flexion fracture, extension fracture, or rotation fracture.
A flexion fracture refers to a neck fracture where the vertebra collapses along the front of the neck. This type of neck fracture can occur when your flex your neck too far. Small pieces of the broken bone that may break off can also damage nearby nerves and muscles in the area, causing further injury.
An extension fracture is a type of neck fracture where the vertebrae come apart. This is a more common type of neck fracture with car accident injuries when the head and neck whip back and forward violently. Whiplash is a common head and neck injury that can also occur with this type of impact during a car accident.
A rotation fracture refers to a neck fracture where one or more vertebrae become damaged as the spine twists or bends to the side. This type of fracture can also occur when you move or bend too far from side to side. A car accident where your vehicle is struck from the side can cause your body to jolt violently to one side.
Symptoms of a Neck Injury
Symptoms of a neck fracture can range from mild to severe depending on the location, cause, and type of injury. The main symptoms of a neck injury, like a fracture, include neck pain that gets worse with certain movements. A neck fracture can also cause tingling and numbness that extends into the upper body if nearby nerves were also damaged in the car accident. Symptoms of a neck fracture also include muscle fatigue and swelling around the neck. Bruising and discoloration can also occur around the injury site. In serious cases of a neck fracture, you could experience loss of feeling in your arms or legs or even paralysis.
Emergency Response for Neck Injuries
In the event of trauma to the head, neck, or spine, it is best to stay immobilized until you can get attention from a medical professional. If you suspect a severe injury to your spine from a car accident, it is best to stay where you are and wait for help to arrive. If you are with someone who you suspect has a spinal injury, then you should leave them where they are and encourage them to stay still until emergency professionals can attend the scene. Sometimes the victim of a car accident with a neck injury may also be unconscious, and you want to avoid moving that person. First responders have the necessary training to attend the scene and provide life-saving care. This may include putting a brace around the neck to stabilize the head and neck for transport to the hospital for further medical attention.
How a Neck Fracture is Diagnosed
The sooner you seek treatment for a neck fracture, the sooner you can get an accurate diagnosis of your injury. If you were in a car accident, then you may need emergency medical attention for a serious neck injury. You may also visit your trusted car accident doctor for a diagnosis and treatment plan. To diagnose a neck fracture, your doctors would run a series of tests to help determine the specific type and location of the injury. X-rays, CT scans, or an MRI can provide detailed images of the injured area so your doctor can diagnose the neck fracture. They may also recommend neurological testing to assess the functioning of nearby nerves that may have been impacted by the injury.
What if a Neck Fracture Goes Undiagnosed?
Anyone can sustain a neck injury while in a car accident, playing sports, or even on the job. The most important thing to do if you experience sudden neck pain and other symptoms after an event is to get checked out by a doctor. If a neck fracture goes undiagnosed, damaged pieces of the vertebrae in your neck can continue to fracture or shift around, which can cause even more damage. While the spine is built to withstand a lot of movements and activity, the resilience of your spine can only go so far when dealing with a sudden impact or injury. Don’t wait days or even weeks after an accident to get medical attention for neck pain after a car accident. You could also have other injuries from the car accident, like whiplash, sprains, or strains that may impact your injuries or make your symptoms worse.
Complications of a Neck Fracture
Undiagnosed neck fractures can lead to further complications from the injury. An undiagnosed neck fracture could cause a deformity in your neck and permanent misalignment in your cervical spine. This can cause your neck to weaken, and you may lose neck strength and experience less range of motion. A neck fracture can also cause nerve damage that can have lasting effects on your life. The fractured vertebrae may aggravate, pinch, or even block nerves that run along the spine. Initial symptoms of a neck fracture with nerve damage can include tingling, fatigue, and radiating pain. If left untreated, you risk permanent nerve damage. An undiagnosed neck fracture can also lead to soft tissue damage in the area. Damage to muscles, tendons, and blood vessels in the area can compromise healthy functioning and even prevent the area from healing properly after the injury. Damage to nerves or soft tissues can become permanent if left untreated.
Treatment Options for a Neck Fracture
The first step to treating a neck fracture Is to get an accurate diagnosis of the type and severity of the injury. Once your doctor has determined your neck fracture diagnosis, they can develop a treatment and rehabilitation plan that addresses your specific type of injury. Here are some examples of treatment options your doctor may recommend for a neck fracture after a car accident.
In the immediate aftermath of the accident, emergency responders may attend the scene and put you in a neck brace, commonly known as a cervical collar. The cervical collar helps brace your neck and keep the area stable while you get the medical attention you need. While working on a diagnosis for your neck fracture, your doctor may recommend you stay in a cervical collar until they have determined the next steps for treatment and to avoid further damage to the area. Wearing a neck brace while you recover can also help provide support to your neck and restrict movements that could negatively impact your recovery.
Your car accident doctor will also talk to you about how to manage your pain from a neck fracture. There are many options for pain management so you will want to talk to your doctor about what options are right for you. Some pain management solutions include medications that help control swelling and inflammation in the area. Other pain management solutions can include resting the area, applying ice to help reduce swelling, and avoiding certain movements or activities while you heal.
A physical therapist can also help you recover after a neck fracture. Physical therapy for car accident injuries offers a minimally invasive approach to your treatment plan and allows you to take an active role in your recovery. If you need to wear a neck brace for weeks after the injury, a physical therapist can walk you through safe movements, stretches, and possibly even exercises to help you avoid weakness. Physical therapists work with car accident victims to manage their pain, increase their strength, and improve their mobility after an injury.
In severe cases, a neck fracture may require surgery. Surgery for a neck fracture may also be your only option if your injury leads to life-threatening complications. Options for neck fracture surgery will depend on your specific injury. An example of spinal surgery for a neck fracture may include applying screws or a metal cage to the spine for support while it heals from the injury. If soft tissues or nerves were also damaged due to the neck fracture, you may also require additional surgery to mend these areas and prevent further loss of functioning or paralysis.
Recovering from a Neck Injury after a Car Accident
While recovering from a neck injury like a neck fracture, you might become frustrated at how the injury has restricted you from certain movements or activities. You may need to stay in the hospital for a designated period of time for observation while you heal. It is best to follow your doctor’s orders and treatment plan to avoid making the injury worse or increasing the time it takes for you to heal. Get support from friends or family who can help with everyday tasks or things you need to be taken care of while you heal so you can focus on rest and recovery. Physical therapy can help you rehabilitate after the injury and help you work through how your injury has impacted your work, family, and social life.
Visit a car accident doctor at AICA Orthopedics for any neck pain you experience after a car accident. Our doctors have access to state-of-the-art diagnostic tools in the office, so you can get the scans you need and meet with trusted car accident doctors all in one convenient location near you.