Can You Really Break Your Neck?

Since you were a child, you’ve probably been told to be careful during certain activities so you don’t break your neck. But is that actually possible, and will it cause immediate paralysis or death, as your mother warned you? It’s possible, especially in the case of a complete break, but in many cases a partial or even full recovery is possible.

The area we call the neck is a section of seven vertebrae in the spinal column, or backbone, which runs through most of the body and connects it to the brain. The spinal cord is located in the middle of the neck and is both sensitive and vulnerable. Force from a sudden twist to the neck, or a severe blow to the head or neck, can cause a fracture; this means a break in one of the vertebrae of the neck. The higher up in the spinal column the break occurs, the greater risk there is of paralysis or other permanent damage. A complete break, which occurs in about half of cases, results in total loss of function and sensation, whereas a partial break usually retains some function.

Some of the most common causes of the traumatic blow or twist that can cause a broken neck include injuries sustained during contact sports, a bad fall, an accident such as a car crash, and diving into a shallow body of water. Osteoporosis and other illnesses or medications that cause bone loss (such as tumors or menopause), as well as old age, can put you at a higher risk. People who don’t wear a seatbelt also have a much higher chance of breaking their neck while riding in a car, as are athletes who don’t wear appropriate safety gear while playing sports.

Symptoms of a broken neck include acute pain which may spread to the shoulders and other areas, swelling and tenderness in the neck, and decreased sensation or tingling in the limbs. These are serious signs and require immediate medical attention, so call for emergency help right away. Proper movement and transport of a person with a potential broken neck is essential, since the risk of permanent damage if improperly done is very high, so it should be performed by medical professionals.


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