What Should You Do If You Think Someone Has Broken Their Neck?

What Should You Do If You Think Someone Has Broken Their Neck?

About 17,500 people in the United States sustain a spinal cord or neck injury every year. That’s approximately 48 every single day. Moreover, according to some data, about 450,000 people in the United States are living with a neck or spine injury.1

Most of these injuries occur as a result of a traumatic incident, like a car accident, fall or sport injury.

Unfortunately, neck injuries can be somewhat difficult to spot because they’re not always apparent at the time of the injury. Worse, however, is that many people don’t know what to do when they’re put in the situation of needing to help a person who has potentially broken their neck or back.

That’s why we’ve put together this guide which helps outline what you should do if you think someone has broken their neck, the common warning signs of a spinal injury and why they’re so serious.

First, it’s important for us to note that if you think that you or another person may have sustained a spinal injury, your first action should be to dial 9-1-1. There are steps that a non-medical professional can take to ensure there is no further injury to the sensitive nerves within the spinal column, but it is not a substitute for actual treatment.

This list is also not comprehensive. There are many different ways a person can cause damage to their spine and many different ways that it can manifest itself. This being the case, you should never just “risk it” if you or someone else has sustained a traumatic injury to the head or back.

It’s better to be safe and have the injury turn out to be nothing than the other way around.

That said, let’s start by pointing out some of the common “red flags” that typically appear when there has been injury to the spine.

What are the Symptoms of a Spinal Cord Injury?

The effects of a spinal cord injury can vary significantly depending on the location and severity of the damage. Typically, however, it often results in at least partial loss of function to certain areas of the body below the site of the injury.

People who have experienced a spinal cord injury will likely experience symptoms falling into one, or several, of the following major categories:2

Respiratory: Respiratory complications are often a strong indication of the amount of spinal damage that has occurred in an injury. If the victim is having trouble breathing, or cannot breathe on their own, it can mean they have severely damaged their spinal cord.

Back/Neck: Extreme pain or pressure in your head, neck or back.

Muscular: Inability to move certain muscles, muscle weakness, problems with coordination or balance, unusual or prolonged muscle stiffness, muscle spasms or overactive muscles.

Sensory: Reduced or no sensation in certain areas of the body or prolonged tingling, especially in the fingers, feet or toes.

Urinary/Bowel: Loss of bowel or urinary control.

Other symptoms can include:

  • The person complains of pain in their neck or back

  • There is evidence of a head injury and an ongoing change in the person’s consciousness

  • The neck is twisted or positioned unnaturally  

  • The person has been in a violent or sudden accident where excessive force has been exerted on the neck or back of the head

It’s important to note that not all of these symptoms may manifest themselves immediately or prominently after an injury to the spinal cord.

It’s a common misconception that spinal injuries are acutely obvious when they occur. On the contrary, while it’s definitely easy to know when a spine trauma is serious, it can be difficult to spot if the victim is conscious, able to move and feels fine after the injury. 

Additionally, symptoms of a spinal injury, specifically numbness or paralysis, don’t always occur instantaneously. While this is certainly possible, occasionally, it can come on gradually as bleeding and swelling occur within the spinal column.3

According to Deputy Chief Jason Jenkins of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, "the use of drugs and/or alcohol can impair an individual's ability to sense pain and may not be a reliable indicator of injury."

Deputy Chief Jenkins recommends that if there is any question that a person has injured their neck, a good rule of thumb is to take every precaution possible when someone has experienced a traumatic injury to the head, back or pelvis. Additionally, if you see any penetrating injuries in the area of the spine, or the victim has fallen from a significant height, you should always assume a spinal injury, even if they feel alright in the moment.

It’s better to assume there is spinal damage and get it cleared by a medical professional than assume everything is fine only to find out that serious trauma has occurred.  

What Should You Do if You Suspect Someone has a Spinal Injury?

1) Seek help. Call 911 or seek emergency medical help before touching the patient. When communicating with the 911 operator, tell them you suspect the person has a spinal injury. This will allow the dispatcher to send the appropriate personnel to the scene.  

2) Keep the victim still and calm. Any movement can cause further damage to the spine or sensitive nerves, so keep the person as still as possible. If available, place heavy towels or clothes on both sides of the head and neck to prevent any movement. If not, lay your hands flat on either side of the person’s head and manually hold it steady.

3) Address life-threatening wounds first. Spinal injuries rarely occur without other, serious trauma to the body. Look for wounds in the abdomen, chest, neck and thigh area that could be life-threatening. While spinal injuries are very serious, fatalities most often occur from the wounds that result from an injury that also affected the spine, not the spinal injury itself. Place pressure on wounds and do what you can to control serious bleeding while you wait for medical personnel to arrive. Remember to keep the neck still and aligned at all times.

4) Adjust CPR technique. If the person shows no signs of breathing or other movement, begin CPR. If their head is positioned at an angle that has closed off their airway, do not tilt it back in order to open it up. This could cause more damage to the spine and surrounding nerves. If you are unable to find a pulse, start doing chest compressions.4 

5) Do not remove helmet. If the person is wearing a helmet (bicycle, football, motorcycle, etc.) do not remove it. This movement could cause more damage to the spine.

6) Do not roll alone. Occasionally, victims can vomit, choke on their blood or otherwise put themselves in danger of further injury. If this is occurring, seek the help of a second person with one person at the head and another at the side. While rolling, work with the other person to ensure that the neck and body remain aligned throughout the process.        

7) Communicate. If the person is conscious, be sure to continue communicating with them and encouraging them to remain as still as possible.

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Atlantic Brain and Spine A graduate of both Yale and Stanford, Dr. Jae Lim is a board-certified spine surgeon who specializes in minimally invasive spine surgery and robotic spine surgery, significantly reducing surgical impact and recovery times. (703) 876-4270
8501 Arlington Blvd. Suite 330
United States
Jae Y. Lim Ben L. Nguyen