A broken neck can be a simple break like any other bone in your body or it can be very severe and can cause paralysis or death. When the bones in your neck break, the nerves of your spinal cord can also get damaged. When this happens, it’s referred to as a spinal cord injury. A broken neck is a very serious injury and should be treated as a medical emergency needing immediate attention.

A broken neck is often very painful and may make movement of the head difficult or impossible.

Depending on the level of damage to your spinal cord, it can also affect other parts of your body, such as a difficulty or inability to move your arms and legs. Paralysis may be temporary or permanent.

A person may also feel tingling in their hands and feet and difficulty with balance and walking.

The causes of a broken neck are usually some sort of trauma, such as a fall or car accident. Very rarely does a stress fracture — a break caused by a constant or repeated stress — occur in the neck.

A broken neck can be diagnosed following an X-ray. Neck breaks are very high up on the spinal cord, but if the break also damages your spinal cord, it can affect your entire lower body — everything below the site of the break. Spinal cord injuries resulting from a neck break can be diagnosed by:

  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • Somatosensory evoked potential (SSEP), also called magnetic stimulation

Treatment for a broken neck is directed by the severity of the break:

  • For a break that doesn’t affect the spinal cord, a simple neck brace and rest with some pain management is preferred.
  • If the break is more severe, surgery may be required to fix the bones and set them back into the correct place. A stronger neck brace will be used.
  • For breaks that also damage the spinal cord, options are severely limited. Your spinal cord is unable to heal itself and there are no treatments available yet to fix the spinal cord.

A simple break that doesn’t affect your spinal cord can be treated with a neck brace worn for six to eight weeks until the bone heals.

More complicated breaks can require surgery and other treatments such as a stiff neck brace for up to three months.

With breaks that also damage the spinal cord, recovery may not be possible. The bone may heal, but the nerves in the spinal cord can be permanently damaged and cause lasting effects such as paralysis. There’s currently no treatment to fix the spinal cord, but according to the endParalysis foundation, “...it seems that we might have come a bit closer to achieving a certain level of recovery.”

Broken necks may be simple breaks that can heal within just a few weeks, or they can be life-altering injuries. Because of this, all neck breaks should be treated as medical emergencies.