Protect Your Body: Neck Anatomy and Injuries

Often when we think of neck injuries, an image pops into our minds of a first responder expertly applying a neck brace to an injured person. However, we should also consider the risks to neck health for those very people who answer the call to a disaster.

Repeated tasks – such as hauling gear on your shoulders and bracing it with your neck – threaten your health. So, too, can violent acts, such as a suspect grabbing a police officer by the neck or an object falling on a public works employee’s head.

Accidents cause further concern. If a first responder trips, a fall can easily lead to a neck injury.

A word of warning before we go further: This blog should not be considered medical advice or replace advice or information from your health care professional. However, our decades of experience in physical therapy and sports training offer key insights.

Neck anatomy: A look inside the spine

It makes sense that the cervical spine (aka C-spine), which is the anatomical term for the vertebrae of the neck, is vulnerable to injury.  Let’s look at a section of the spine called a vertebral segment to get a clearer picture. 

Graphic of neck anatomy
Knowing the parts of your neck can help you understand potential risk of injuries.

The spinal segment’s interface is bone-disc-bone. The front of the spinal segment faces the same orientation as your nose, and the rear faces the same direction as the back of your head. The intervertebral disc separates the top vertebra (or bone) and bottom vertebra below.  This disc serves as a cushion between the two bones. 

What this picture fails to reflect are the muscles that surround the spinal segments that also can be injured. But that will be another blog topic in the future.

Neck injuries: What we often see

All neck injuries are not equal.  Here are a few key injuries that we see in your line of work:

Chokes: This occurs when an extreme amount of flexion and pressure occurs. During a choke, the muscles on the back of the neck, which generally try to resist the choke, engage. Another possibility is high pressure on the disc, when the neck flexion reaches its end range of motion.

This can lead to stiffness in the back of the neck, difficulty holding one’s head off the ground, headaches/migraines, or – in extreme cases – tingling and numbness down the arm or weakness in the arm.  

Whiplash, or a cervical strain/sprain: This injury commonly occurs in car wrecks.  At the point of impact, the head continues forward and when it reaches its end range of motion, it snaps back in the opposite direction.

This can cause a lot of pain and stiffness in the back of the neck, a loss of range of motion, and – again in extreme cases – tingling and numbness down the arm and/or weakness in the arm.

Disc herniation/bulge: Typically, this injury happens when pressure forces the head forward. For instance, think of if you fall on your neck or a heavy object falls on your head.  In these cases, the disc between the two vertebras bulges out – or herniates posteriorly (toward the back) – and impinges on the nerve. 

This can cause pain, tingling and numbness down the arm and/or weakness.  The area of the arm and muscles that are affected will guide the clinician to know which disc is involved.

Neck health and expert help

After reading this blog, I hope you begin to see why it is important to have a doctor and physical therapist who understand the physical demands and risks of your job.

Knowing the mechanism of injury and potential tissues that are involved means a more targeted intervention. Expert intervention expedites recovery, leads to a better outcome and gets you back to full duty at 100 percent!

Join us next week when we share our three favorite exercises to reduce your risk of neck injury.

Dr. Trent Nessler

Dr. Trent Nessler

MPT, DPT
President of Rebound Vitality - Innovative wellness for first responders

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