Cervical spine injuries can occur during motor vehicle accidents, in rough contact sports, after a fall, or by hitting your head against a hard surface, such as when diving into a pool that is too shallow. These accidents can cause injuries that range from mild cases of neck pain, called whiplash, to injuries that can cause paralysis of the rest of the body below the level of injury.
Whiplash is the common term used for a hyperextension injury to the neck. Though the neck is a very flexible structure, it can be injured when the weight of the head exceeds the neck's ability to control its motion. The injury usually happens when the head is suddenly jerked back and forth beyond its normal limits during a car accident, rough contact sports, or a fall. This jerking motion can cause over-stretching and tearing of the neck muscles and ligaments and can cause the discs between the neck vertebrae to bulge, tear or rupture.
The discs that act as shock absorbers between the vertebral bodies of the cervical spine can be damaged during an accident. When this happens, the material in the center of the disk can be pushed out from where it normally is, a process called disk herniation. A herniated disk can put pressure on the spinal cord or nerves to the arms and legs. In situations when a disk ruptures very quickly, as in the case of an accident, then the nerve does not have any time to adjust to the increased pressure and it may stop working.
Fractures and Dislocations
Fractures and dislocations of the cervical spine demand early and accurate diagnosis so that treatment can quickly be introduced in order to produce a painless, stable neck and prevent pressure on the spinal cord and/or nerves. When the neck is injured in very violent accidents, the bones in the neck can be broken or pulled forcefully out of normal alignment. Fractures and dislocations of the cervical spine are very serious injuries because there is the potential for damage to the spinal cord if the patient is not taken care of very carefully.
Spinal Cord Injuries
Each year in the United Sates, there will be approximately 50,000 new spinal cord injuries caused by accidents. A spinal cord injury occurs when the cord itself is crushed, stretched, or torn by the accident. Unfortunately, this is still an injury that can not be reversed or cured by modern medicine. More than half of these injuries involves the cervical spine, and most of them happen to young men. These injuries are incredibly devastating to the patient, their families, and also to their communities. There is currently a lot of research being done on ways to minimize spine injuries by designing cars for better safety, improving protective gear like football helmets, and educating people about the dangers of certain activities. There is also a lot of research being done on how to care for someone immediately after they have had a spinal cord injury, and also what kind of rehabilitation is best for them.