The neck is a complex structure and if you get hit in the throat there could be internal damage to blood vessels and organs such as your:
- windpipe (trachea), the tube that carries air to your lungs
- esophagus, the tube that carries food to your stomach
- vocal cords (larynx)
Here we’ll discuss how to evaluate your injury, what kind of self care you can try, and when to definitely seek medical help.
Should you see a doctor?
If you have any concerning discomfort, pain, or bruising after getting hit in the throat, get checked out by a medical professional.
First, in more medical terms, a punch to the throat is considered blunt force trauma.
We asked an expert for advice on how to evaluate a throat injury that isn’t immediately life threatening.
Dr. Jennifer Stankus is an emergency physician at the Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington state. She’s also an attorney who serves as an expert witness in injury, trauma, malpractice, and criminal cases.
There are three areas of concern with a blunt trauma to the neck, Stankus said:
- cervical spine (neck) injuries
- windpipe injuries
- vascular injuries
If the injury is severe, and the skin is broken, seek immediate medical help. Call 911 or your local emergency services, or go to a hospital emergency room.
Injuries to your cervical spine (vertebral column in the neck) sometimes happen when the neck is bent quickly forward or backward. They can also happen with a quick rotational force of the neck of the sort you get in assaults, falls, or sports-related injuries, Stankus said.
If you have whiplash or a ligament injury, it’s common to have pain around the cervical spine, she said. These are little micro tears in the neck muscles.
“These are the kind of tears you can get from a hard workout, when you’re sore and tight. It’s not concerning,” Stankus asserted.
What to do
Take some over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) and put some ice or heat on it. Cover the ice with a towel, so the ice pack isn’t directly on your skin.
When to see a doctor
- spinal pain
- weakness or loss of feeling in your arms or hands
- difficulty walking or coordinating your limbs
If you have any spinal pain or weakness, or loss of sensation in your arm or hand, you need to see a doctor. You should also check with a doctor if you have difficulty walking, Stankus said. These are signs of a potential spine injury.
“If you injure your windpipe, trachea, or pharynx, you can have a lot of swelling around them. Sometimes the swelling can be extensive enough that it can actually start to block off the airway,” Stankus said.
“If you have any rapid breathing or difficulty breathing, changes to your voice, wheezing (stridor), or odd changes in the sound of your breathing,” it’s an emergency, Stankus said.
What to do
Seek help immediately for changes to your breathing. Don’t wait to see your doctor, but call 911 or local emergency services.
“Running parallel to the windpipe, right in the front, are some large blood vessels, such as the carotid artery. Especially in older people who have some underlying vascular disease to begin with, these structures can be damaged,” she said.
One of two things can happen when these structures are hit, Stankus said:
“A clot in that artery can flick off and go to the brain and cause a stroke. Or the blood vessels will start to disrupt,” Stankus explained: “There are three layers of muscle there. Sometimes when there’s trauma to that blood vessel, one of those layers can separate from the others, creating a flap. Then the problem is, just as in a stream or river where there’s an eddy, you get a back flow.”
“When you have a deflection like that, you start to get eddying of the blood, so it’s not moving freely through the system. That blood can start to clot off, and that can cause a stroke as well.”
What to do
“If you have any significant swelling or pain, it’s an emergency. Call 911,” Stankus said.
If you don’t have a lot of pain or any other severe symptoms, it’s likely that you’re just bruised.
There’s not much to do about bruising. “Bruising just means that there’s some leakage of blood into your soft tissues, and that blood has to be reabsorbed by the body,” Stankus said
“The way that happens is that the hemoglobin in your blood, will start to break down and change colors. The hemoglobin is red or purple, depending on how oxygenated it is, and whether it came from a vein or artery.”
“Over a period of two to five days, this blood will start to break down, and then it changes colors. It will first be purple, then it could [be] greenish, and yellow. And then it will go away.”
“Sometimes a throat bruise, because of gravity, will start to migrate down, to the collarbone over time, with no new injury. That’s normal,” Stankus said, “not something to be concerned about.”
What to do
Initially ice the area to limit swelling and take NSAIDs, but don’t put extra pressure on the neck, Stankus said.
The sooner you can apply ice, the better for minimizing discomfort from the bruise.
You might want to try some home remedies to speed bruise healing, in addition to ice.
The time to heal will depend on the extent of your injury.
“If it’s just bruising,” Stankus said, “that can last for a week to several weeks.”
“If you have a cervical sprain or strain, those can resolve in a couple of days, or can linger for several weeks.”
Neck trauma accounts for 5 percent to 10 percent of all serious traumatic injuries. Most of these are penetrating throat injuries, where the skin is broken, according to a 2014 review article. Blunt neck trauma without a skin break is more rare.
Blows to the throat can cause potentially life-threatening complications.
If the blow doesn’t break through your skin and you’re not in great pain, you’re not likely to have complications.
If you have a sore throat after the blunt trauma, even if mild, it’s best to seek medical help. There may be a tear in the tissues underneath the skin. Depending on the extent of the tear, you may need surgery.
Other than being directly punched in the neck, similar trauma to this area can happen in other ways. Car and motorcycle accidents often involve blunt trauma to the throat area. Other common causes are:
- sports injuries
- machinery injuries
If you’re punched in the throat and no skin is broken, it’s likely that your bruises will heal with home care alone. Bruises heal slowly. It make take weeks for the bruising to go away.
If you notice any swelling or breathing or voice changes after the injury, seek immediate medical care. Your neck houses delicate organs and blood vessels that may be damaged.