What is a cervical spine fracture?

Your spine is made up of 33 separate bones (vertebrae) plus many discs, ligaments and muscles which together form your spinal column.  This surrounds and protects your spinal cord. A break in one of these bones in the upper part of the column is called a cervical or neck fracture. Breaks can occur in the body of the vertebrae, or to one of the processes. When a fracture occurs it can also damage your spinal cord and might result in paralysis (loss of feeling and movement) below the level of the injury, reduced muscle power (weakness), altered sensations and muscle tone. The information here relates to spinal fractures without damage to the spinal cord.

Spinal fractures can be caused by a direct trauma, for example a fall or car accident, where a force to the spine causes the bone to break. They can also be caused by a low force movement in people with osteoporosis (thinning of the bones making them more fragile) where the bone breaks more easily.

Signs and symptoms

Everybody with a cervical spine fracture will experience slightly different symptoms, depending on the part of the vertebrae which is broken, where the break has occurred, and any other related injuries, for example to surrounding muscles or ligaments. Common symptoms include:

  • pain at the fracture site – on movement and when pressure is applied
  • reduced range of movement in the neck and surrounding areas
  • reduced muscle power in the neck muscles
  • reduced mobility
  • reduced balance
  • difficulty moving in bed or standing up from sitting


Fractures are managed differently depending on where they are located and what symptoms you are experiencing. This may include surgery or a neck collar/brace, but some people do not require either of these. You should take painkillers to control your pain and enable you to move around and resume your normal activities.

Possible complications

Following a spinal fracture you can develop stiffness and pain in your neck as a result of decreased normal movement. You may experience some muscle spasm in the surrounding tissues which can also contribute to this pain. Some people may suffer from some muscle weakness or numbness / tingling if they have any damage to the nerves.

What can I do to help my recovery?

Following a fracture, some people develop pain and stiffness in their neck. During your admission to Hospital you will be provided with advice and an exercise sheet. You should complete the exercises daily to help restore full range of movement. Your Physiotherapist/Occupational Therapist will provide advice on managing daily activities as you might need to temporarily modify these. Ensure your pain is well-controlled by taking regular painkillers.

What happens after I have left hospital?

You should be followed up in fracture clinic and reviewed, usually at 6-8 weeks after injury.

If you have difficulty in achieving full range of movement in your neck, you have pain which does not settle or if you find it difficult to return to full work duties or hobbies, you may need a referral to outpatient physiotherapy. This can be done via fracture clinic or your GP.