How a Neck Fracture Is Treated

Man with broken neck reading

Fabrice LEROUGE/ONOKY/Getty Images

Treatment for a neck fracture—also called a cervical fracture or broken neck—depends on the severity of the injury, which cervical vertebrae (bones in the neck that protect the spinal cord) are injured, and if the spinal cord is involved. A minor compression fracture can be treated with a cervical collar or brace worn for six to eight weeks to immobilize the neck until the break heals. A hangman's fracture, which is a break in the second vertebrae down from the skull—the C2—may require more serious skeletal traction in which metal pins are temporarily placed in the skull and attached to a frame fitted with a pulley, weights, and a rope. This type of traction, surgery, or a combination of both may be necessary if a neck fracture is more extensive. When a break involves the spinal cord, paralysis or even death may occur. For this reason, any time a person injures their neck they should not be moved, and emergency help should be sought immediately, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

Home Remedies

If you are being treated at home for a neck fracture, or have been released from the hospital, it is important to follow your doctor's instructions.

Here are some additional at-home guidelines that will help you heal:

  • If you're using a neck brace or cervical collar, it should always be worn in bed unless you're told otherwise by your doctor.
  • Sleep on your back if possible. If it's too uncomfortable, you can sleep on your side. Your bed should be firm.
  • Take pain medicines exactly as directed.
  • If you are not taking a prescription medicine, ask your doctor if you can take over-the-counter drugs for pain.
  • Don't return to your normal activities until you get the medical go-ahead.
  • Do any exercises that your doctor recommends to keep your muscles strong and to reduce stiffness. Avoid any movements that you are told will worsen the injury.
  • You can try using heat or ice. A heating pad should be set on low or medium, and can be applied for 15 to 20 minutes every two to three hours. (A warm shower may also help). You can also apply an ice pack for 10 to 15 minutes every two to three hours.
  • Make adjustments in your home for safe maneuvering. This includes clearing the floor of any items so you don't fall. Make sure carpets and flooring are tacked down and that lighting is good so you can see where you're going, especially at night.
  • Drive only when your doctor approves, and always wear a seat belt.
  • Discuss diet and supplements with your doctor that may improve bone strength.

Medication

Although medications won't heal a neck fracture, they can relieve the pain and help you get through your daily activities while the break mends.

The first drugs typically recommended for a simple neck fracture are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Advil or Aleve, and acetaminophen, such as Tylenol.

If these drugs don't effectively relieve the pain, your doctor may prescribe:

  • Muscle relaxants (Valium)
  • Prescription NSAIDs (Celebrex)
  • Opioids (Vicodin or Fentanyl)
  • Neuropathic drugs (Neurontin)

In dealing with a neck fracture you want to minimize side effects or potential interactions that you may not even be aware of, so consult your doctor before taking anything.

Immobilization Devices

The primary goal in treating a cervical fracture is to stabilize the head and neck. This is usually done through immobilization, which means wearing a cervical collar, neck brace or using another form of traction, depending on the severity of the fracture:

  • Neck brace or cervical collar: These are used to treat minor fractures and keep the neck and spine aligned while the fracture heals. Cervical collars can be soft or semi-rigid. Soft collars are typically made of foam or rubber and allow for limited movement of the neck. A semi-rigid collar often has plastic plates on the sides to prevent side-to-side or up-and-down movement of your neck. Braces and collars are usually worn for six to eight weeks.
  • Traction: More severe fractures may require traction, or more manipulation, to help realign the bones back to their normal position. Traction may be necessary up to 12 weeks. A halo vest is a type of traction that prevents the head and neck from moving. The halo is a ring that encircles the head and is attached by pins to the outer portion of the skull (some halos are pinless but are only used in certain situations). A vest, usually lined with sheepskin, is worn on the torso. Rods known as “uprights” are connected to the vest and extend up to the halo. Oftentimes, small screwdrivers are taped to the uprights to allow emergency access if needed. Halo vests are worn at all times until the fracture is healed.

Surgeries

Neck fractures that involve extensive damage may require surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal cord or remove any damaged vertebral disks.

The overall goals of surgery for a neck fracture is to preserve or improve neurologic function, provide spinal stability, and decrease pain. This is usually done by fusing the bone together.

Surgery frequently involves posterior (back of the neck incision) cervical fusion and mending the spine bones together using small metal screws and rods to stabilize the spine. Other options include anterior (front of the neck incision) decompression and fusion, with or without metal plate and screws. Severe fractures may require both front and back incisions during surgery.

Surgical decompression, which is the surgical removal of bone fragments off of the spinal cord, may be necessary to maximize a patient’s chances for recovery from a spinal cord injury.

A Word From Verywell

In many cases, people who experience neck fractures have to remain in the hospital, and sometimes even in the intensive care unit if the fracture is very serious. They may need a tube and mechanical ventilation to assist breathing. Following surgery, physical therapy and rehabilitation may be needed for weeks, months, or even years. But while a broken neck is admittedly painful and frightening, it can be successfully treated and, over time, heal.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.