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 often can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication and a cervical collar or brace to immobilize the neck until the break heals. A hangman's fracture—a break in the second vertebrae down from the skull (the C2)—is likely to require traction and surgery may be necessary for very severe neck fractures. 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.
Whether you're dealing with a mild neck fracture or recuperating from surgery to treat a more serious injury, there are ways to deal with pain and inflammation that accompany healing.
Heat therapy: A heating pad set on low to medium or another source of gentle heat applied to the neck for 15 to 20 minutes every three to four hours can help to relieve pain.
Cold therapy: Ice counters inflammation by diverting blood away from an injury. Use an ice pack wrapped in a cloth (so you don't inadvertently freeze your skin) every two to three hours for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.
Rest: Even if you aren't wearing a cervical collar, brace, or other device to immobilize your neck, it's important to give yourself the opportunity to heal. Follow your doctor's instructions for curtailing activities, including driving.
You may need medication to deal with pain and inflammation while a neck fracture heals.
For a mild fracture, a non-prescription analgesic and/or anti-inflammatory medication may be strong enough to provide relief from discomfort.
The options most often recommended are Tylenol and other forms of acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) including Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen). Generic forms of these medications are as effective and, usually, less expensive than the leading brand names.
When OTC drugs aren't strong enough to alleviate pain or other types of relief are needed, a doctor may prescribe certain medications for a neck fracture, such as:
Prescription-strength NSAIDs such as Celebrex (celecoxib)
Opioids such as Vicodin (hydrocodone/acetaminophen)
Muscle relaxants—for example, Valium (diazepam)
Neuropathic medications such as Neurontin (gabapentin)
A primary goal of treating a cervical fracture is to stabilize the head and neck. This is usually done through immobilization, which means wearing a cervical collar or neck brace, or using another form of traction.
Cervical collar: 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 the head. Cervical collars are usually worn for six to eight weeks.
Traction: More severe fractures may require manipulation and/or traction to realign the bones in their normal position. A halo vest is commonly used to accomplish this. It consists of a ring (the halo) that encircles the head and usually is attached by pins to the outer portion of the skull. The halo also is connected to a sheepskin-lined vest with rods known as uprights. Halo vests are worn at all times until a fracture is fully healed, which can take up to 12 weeks.
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 are to preserve or improve neurologic function, provide spinal stability, and decrease pain. This is usually done by fusing the bone together.
Surgery frequently involves a 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, the 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
A neck fracture can be scary and indeed, in some cases it can be a serious and even life-threatening injury. A fracture that involves the spinal cord may result in permanent medical issues, such as paralysis, for example. Even a fracture that is successfully treated with surgery may take weeks or months to heal completely, and physical therapy and rehab may be necessary for a person to gain full function. That said, most neck fractures can be successfully treated with no lasting repercussions.