Busting Broken Neck Myths: What Do Spinal Cord Injuries Really Mean?

20 February 2019

"Come down from there, you'll break your neck!" Many an anxious mother have shouted these words to their daredevil offspring, as they reached the top of the apple tree or jungle gym. But the majority of us don't have a clear idea of what "break your neck" really means.

There are several broken neck myths, which seem to stem from the fact that the term isn't very clear.

Is "Break" the Same as "Fracture"?

Our neck is composed of seven cervical vertebrae. Small, interlocking bones that provide bony armor for the bundle of nerve fibers that runs the length of our spine. Each vertebra consists of the main, circular body, with a number of processes that jut out from the sides.

When someone suffers a spinal fracture, it means that the integrity of the bone itself is compromised. For example, the vertebra could be split, crushed or have a bony process broken off during a car accident. If this occurs in the bones of the neck, then you technically have a "broken neck."

A broken neck, or a spinal fracture, does not necessarily mean there is damage to the nerves of the spinal cord. However, it's very possible for there to be spinal cord injuries (SCI) with the trauma that caused the bones to fracture, so it's important to be carefully evaluated and treated immediately if you suspect a spinal fracture.

Incomplete Versus Complete Spinal Cord Injuries

A persistent myth with spinal cord injuries is that they cannot improve or get better in any way. In reality, it all depends on the severity of the injury, and the location of the injury which determines the true effect on the person's function.

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons divides spinal cord injuries into two categories: complete and incomplete.

In a complete SCI, there is no function below the level of the injury. No sensation, no motor control. This type of injury is rarely caused by a breaking or severing of the nerves themselves, usually it's through a bruise or swelling of the area. The nerves' oxygen supply is cut off, basically causing the nerves to die from lack of blood flow.

In an incomplete SCI, there may be some movement or sensations on one side of the body or one area of the body below the level of injury, and this means that there is potential for some recovery of function.

Living With Spinal Cord Injury

An estimated 288,000 people live with spinal cord injuries, and there are approximately 17,700 new cases each year, reported the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center.

One person's needs could be very different from another person with SCI. For example, according to the Shepherd Center, an injury to the level of C1 to C4 (the vertebrae closest to the brain) could result in difficulty breathing, speaking and controlling bowel and bladder function. These individuals likely require 24-hour assistance with their activities of daily living. But for an injury to vertebrae C5 through C8, these individuals can potentially drive a specifically adapted vehicle and live mostly independently with some assistance for especially complex tasks.

Fortunately, the life expectancy for people with spinal cord injuries is much longer today than in the past, when some individuals were only expected to live 18 months after their injury. Current developments such as new treatments, and technology as well as adaptive equipment for home and work environments mean the future for people with SCI is brighter than ever.