Cervical collars, also known as neck braces or C collars, are used to support your spinal cord and head. These collars are a common treatment option for neck injuries, neck surgeries, and some instances of neck pain.
There are different types of cervical collars. Which one you need will depend on your type of neck injury or the underlying cause of your neck pain.
Read on to learn more about the benefits of a cervical collar as well as the potential side effects, especially if it’s worn long-term. If you want tips on how to sleep or bathe with a cervical collar, we’ve got that covered, too.
The purpose of a cervical collar is to support your neck and spinal cord, and to limit the movement of your neck and head. They’re typically meant for short-term use while you recover from an injury, surgery, or pain.
Some conditions that may require the use of a cervical collar include the following:
- Whiplash and trauma. If you’ve been in a car accident or sustained some other kind of injury, like a fall, a cervical collar may protect your neck and prevent further injury.
- Neck surgery. A cervical collar helps to prevent injury after surgery by limiting rotation, as well as side-to-side and back and forth movements.
- Nerve compression. Cervical collars are occasionally used to reduce pressure on the nerves in the neck.
- Cervical spondylosis. A cervical collar may cause temporary relief from pain caused by cervical spondylosis — an age-related condition that’s caused by wear and tear of cartilage and bones in the neck.
- General neck pain or stiffness. A cervical collar may help to take some strain off your neck muscles.
Cervical collars come in soft and hard varieties. Soft collars are usually made from materials such as felt, foam, or rubber. They fit snugly around your neck and sit below your jaw. Some doctors may prescribe them for temporary relief from moderate neck pain.
Soft collars are unlikely to help manage more serious neck injuries.
One study looked at the use of soft cervical collars on 50 patients with whiplash. They found that the soft collar reduced movement by an average of just over 17 percent. The researchers concluded that this wasn’t enough to provide adequate immobilization to have clinical benefits.
Hard collars are usually made from plexiglass or plastic. They restrict head rotation and side-to-side movement more than softer collars. They often have a chin support to allow the muscles in your neck to relax.
Hard neck braces are often prescribed for severe neck pain, spinal fractures, and trauma injuries.
Although cervical collars can help support and protect your neck in the short-term, research has shown that long-term use of a cervical collar may lead to weakening and stiffening of your neck muscles.
In cases of acute injury, this is largely unavoidable. However, if you’re dealing with moderate neck pain, you may want to minimize the amount of time you wear a collar or ask your doctor about alternative treatments.
In recent years, many medical professionals have discouraged the use of cervical collars for people dealing with a traumatic injury. This change of opinion is largely due to safety concerns and a lack of research showing that the use of cervical collars leads to beneficial health outcomes.
Some safety concerns with traumatic injury include potential breathing obstruction, increased brain pressure, and increased jugular blood pressure.
If you need to wear a cervical collar, your healthcare provider will likely give you specific instructions about what you should and shouldn’t do while wearing it.
In general, when wearing a cervical collar, it’s best to:
- Move instead of resting or sitting too much. Gentle movement, like walking, can help prevent your neck muscles from stiffening up. Stiff muscles may prolong your recovery.
- Focus on good posture. Try not to slouch or hunch over. Keep your back straight, shoulders back, head straight with your ears positioned over your shoulders.
- Avoid sitting in soft, low chairs. This can affect your posture and put extra pressure on your neck.
- Avoid lifting or carrying anything heavy. Also avoid strenuous activity, like running, or other high-impact movement.
- Leave your collar on at all times, except when cleaning it or as directed by your healthcare provider.
- Make sure your collar fits tightly, but is comfortable. If the collar doesn’t fit tightly enough, it likely won’t provide the support you need, which could cause further pain or injury. If it’s too loose, it could rub against your skin and cause irritation or blisters.
Here are a few tips for sleeping with a cervical collar:
- Make sure your mattress offers good support. A mattress that’s too soft may not give your neck the support you need.
- Try to keep your neck in a neutral position, not bent forward, backward, or to the side.
- Don’t sleep in a twisted position. Try to keep your neck aligned with your body.
- Try sleeping on your back with a thin pillow. Using extra pillows can put extra pressure on your neck.
- To get out of bed, first roll gently onto your side. Then, swing your legs over the side of the bed and push up with your arms.