By Neel Anand, MD, Contributor | May 9, 2018, at 6:00 a.m.
I’VE BEEN A SPINE surgeon for more than 20 years and am the director of spine trauma at a large hospital in one of the nation’s most populous cities – Los Angeles. I have seen and treated my fair share of serious back and neck injuries. From those sustained during a car accident, a particularly hard fall or during sporting activities, there are few diagnoses that frighten people more than a broken neck. The good news is that advances in medicine and our understanding of what puts people at risk for these types of traumatic spine injuries have come a long way. Even so, there’s still a lot of misunderstanding that needs to be cleared up.
First, some explanation of spinal anatomy and medical terminology. While the commonly used phrase “broken neck” is what most people expect to hear when they’ve suffered a traumatic injury to this area of the spine, it isn’t a medical diagnosis. Rather, a fracture of the cervical spine is the diagnosis a patient would receive if he or she has suffered such an injury. The cervical spine refers to the first seven vertebrae of the spine, housed in the neck. There’s also a quite a bit of difference between what we commonly think of as a broken bone and its actual medical phrasing – a fracture. When we think of “break,” it often conjures the image of a bone, split in two. While that can happen, it’s extremely rare. Rather, a chip or crack in one of the cervical vertebrae is really all that is required to constitute the diagnosis of a fracture. In addition to understanding the terminology used to define a fracture, it’s also important to understand that a sprain and a fracture are completely different diagnoses. Whereas a fracture refers to the structural trauma to a bone or bones in the vertebrae of the spine, a sprain refers to damage sustained to the ligamentous tissues involved surrounding the cervical spine. [Read More]