Neck Injury

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is a neck injury?

A neck injury is any injury or trauma involving the neck. The neck is a vital anatomic crossroads and it consists of the cervical spine and spinal cord, nerves, intervertebral discs, muscles, ligaments, and tendons, in addition to the windpipe (trachea), esophagus, and blood vessels. Any of the neck tissues and organs can be affected by trauma. Because it is a relatively exposed and unprotected area of the body, the neck is particularly vulnerable to potentially serious injuries caused by blunt trauma, compression injury, and sudden extreme movement of the head due to hyperextension (severe bending back of the neck) and hyperflexion (severe bending forward of the neck).

Neck injuries may cause a variety of conditions, from minor neck discomfort to paralysis or death due to cervical vertebrae fracture (broken bone or bones in the neck) and injury to the spinal cord, which carries nerve impulses between the brain and the body. Injuries to the neck are often associated with head injuries and commonly caused by motor vehicle accidents, sports-associated trauma, falls from significant heights, diving into shallow water, violent assaults, and other types of trauma.

Common types of neck injury are neck sprains and strains (sometimes called whiplash). There are seven spinal column bones in the neck, called the cervical vertebrae, that are connected by ligaments. In a neck sprain, the ligaments are torn or stretched by a sudden and strong movement of the head. In a neck strain, the muscles of the neck are pulled or torn. Neck strains and sprains often heal on their own with rest, anti-inflammatory medications as prescribed, and massage or physical therapy. In some cases, a soft neck brace may be recommended for a short period of time.

Cervical fractures are caused by high-energy trauma, such as an injury incurred during a vigorous sport, a high-speed motor vehicle collision, or a fall from a significant height. Cervical fracture requires more comprehensive treatment, including traction and surgery.

Neck injuries can be serious and lead to serious or life-threatening complications, such as paralysis. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have been involved in an accident that can cause neck injury. In addition to neck pain, other serious symptoms that can occur with neck injury include a change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out,paralysis of any part of your body, profuse or uncontrollable bleeding, or difficulty breathing or swallowing.

What are the symptoms of a neck injury?

Symptoms of a neck injury vary in nature and severity due to the type of injury involved. Some symptoms are felt immediately, while others may appear and increase in intensity a day or more later. Symptoms can include:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition

In some cases, a neck injury may cause a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have neck pain after an injury or trauma or any of these symptoms:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out (even briefly) or unresponsiveness
  • Clammy, pale skin
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Paralysis or inability to move any part of the body
  • Profuse or uncontrollable bleeding
  • Respiratory or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, wheezing, not breathing, or choking
  • Severe headache
  • Swelling or deformity of the neck or head

What causes a neck injury?

A neck injury is typically the result of forceful physical trauma that affects the head or neck. Types of physical trauma that may injure the neck include:

  • Activity that results in landing on the head, such as diving into shallow water
  • Fall from a significant height
  • Gunshot injury
  • Motor vehicle accident
  • Physical assault
  • Significant injury to another part of the body, especially the head, back or chest
  • Sports trauma, especially from contact sports, such as injuries associated with football, hockey, or motocross racing. Neck injuries can occur if you get hit hard from behind or you ram another player or an object with your head.

What are the risk factors for a neck injury?

A number of factors increase the risk of experiencing a neck injury. They include:

  • Alcohol consumption or abuse, which can cause people to behave recklessly or carelessly
  • Failure to wear a seat belt when driving or riding in a motor vehicle
  • Improper headrest, which can help protect your neck in a rear-end collision
  • Poor supervision of children near water

Reducing your risk of a neck injury

These healthy lifestyle habits can help prevent the occurrence of a neck injury:

  • Determining water depth and clarity before diving and other water sports
  • Properly adjusting the headrest in your car (about 3.5 inches below the top of the head) and wearing a seat belt when driving or riding in any kind of motor vehicle
  • Supervising children near water at all times

How is a neck injury treated?

Treatment for a neck injury varies widely depending on the type of trauma that caused the injury and the extent of the damage to the neck, head and spine. Different treatment techniques can be combined to alleviate symptoms and realign the spine.

Initial treatment of a neck injury or possible neck injury

Initial emergency treatment of a neck injury includes immobilizing the entire spine with specialized equipment, including a rigid neck collar and backboard. This is called spinal immobilization, which stabilizes any possible vertebra fractures and prevents further damage to the neck bones or spinal cord. Spinal immobilization is maintained until a person is fully medically evaluated and X-rays and other tests and assessment are made to rule out a neck fracture or other serious injury.

Treatment of neck fractures

Treatment of a cervical fracture (neck fracture) varies depending on the exact type of fracture, the extent and type of fracture that occurs in the bone, and other factors, such as if a dislocation has also occurred. Treatment can include:

  • Long-term spinal immobilization with a variety of devices, such a skeletal halo traction system, until the bones have healed and become stable
  • Rigid neck collar or brace
  • Surgical treatment, such as fusing unstable cervical bones with rods, screws or plates

Treatment for neck sprains and strains

Treatment of neck sprains and strains may include:

  • Massage therapy
  • Pain medications and muscle relaxers
  • Physical therapy
  • Soft neck collar for short-term use

What are the potential complications of a neck injury?

Neck injury complications vary widely depending on the type of trauma that caused the injury and the extent of the damage to the neck, head and spine. Complications of a neck injury can include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Chronic pain, weakness or stiffness in the neck, shoulder or arm
  • Death
  • Paralysis (partial or entire)
  • Permanently decreased range of motion in the neck
  • Permanent disability
  • Shock
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 19
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Neck Sprain. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
  3. Q&As: Neck injury. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
  4. Spinal injury. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
  5. Meehan WP 3rd, Mannix R. A substantial proportion of life-threatening injuries are sport-related. Pediatr Emerg Care 2013; 29:624.