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What Is a Cervical Dislocation?

By Rebecca Mecomber
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A cervical dislocation is the displacement of one or more of the seven cervical vertebra in the neck. Most cervical dislocations are caused by blunt trauma, such as motor verhicle accidents or sports injuries. The dislocation occurs when a cervical ligament is torn and one or more of small bones that support the spine are dislodged from its position in the spinal column. Cervical dislocation is commonly called "breaking the neck" or "snapping the spine," but these phrases more accurately describe the breaking or fracturing of a cervical bone — a cervical fracture, rather than a true dislocation. While a cervical fracture is generallly a more serious medical injury than cervical dislocation, a dislocation injury threatens the spinal cord and necessitates immediate medical intervention to avoid internal damage.

Men 15 to 24 years old suffer an overwhelming majority of severe cervical dislocation injuries, with most injuries caused by contact sports, violent acts and motor vehicle accidents. In older adults, age 55 and over, accidental falls and degenerative diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis are the main cause for injury. Patients with a mild case of cervical dislocation may experience neck pain, limited neck movement and weakened muscles. A more severe case results in difficulty breathing, lack of muscle coordination, and paralyzation. Extensive nerve damage to the spine, particularly relating to dislocation of the first and second vertebrae in the cervical column, can cause permanent paralysis or death.

Immediate medical treatment for any neck injury is crucial. In a cervical dislocation, torn ligaments cannot support the vertebrae in the cervical column, causing one or more of the bones to shift from its place. The bone may press against sensitive nerves in the spinal column, or the vertebra displacement may cause the soft, gel-filled sacs, called discs, to protrude from its place. Protruding discs, also called herniated discs, press against the spinal column. This causes the patient severe pain and may lead to nerve damage or paralysis of parts of the body.

Most dislocation injuries can be treated. Patients with a minor dislocation injury are prescribed bed rest, analgesics and physical therapy to reduce pain until the ligament heals and the vertebra realigns. The patient may wear a soft cervical collar to keep the neck immobilized. More severe injuries can require skull traction, surgery and internal traction. Cervical dislocation as the result of degenerative diseases may also require surgery to treat pain and prevent spinal cord damage.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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