Medscape is available in 5 Language Editions – Choose your Edition here.


C1 Fractures Treatment & Management

  • Author: Mark R Foster, MD, PhD, FACS; Chief Editor: Jeffrey A Goldstein, MD  more...
Updated: Mar 09, 2015

Medical Therapy

Patients with C1 fractures customarily have some form of trauma. Accordingly, they need to be immediately stabilized at the scene, which requires the customary attention to the ABCs (airway, breathing, and circulation). If the airway is compromised or air exchange is inadequate, intubation without moving the head is crucial (C-spine protection).

Careful evaluation and frequent reassessment are essential because the patient may have sustained a concussion with the impact to the head (the common injury that produces the C1 fracture) and, because of a clouded sensorium, may not be able to be fully evaluated or to report neck pain. Patients with a diminished alertness and orientation should carefully undergo imaging studies to exclude underlying pathology.

Vertebral artery dissection and neurologic decline may occur with cervical trauma, emphasizing the above recommendation for arteriography. Basilar artery occlusion has been reported with chemical and mechanical thrombolysis, resulting in basilar artery patency and clinical improvement,[7] whereas prior cases of basilar artery occlusion reported death and locked-in syndrome.


Surgical Therapy

Treatment of a C1 fracture consists of stabilization or immobilization in a satisfactorily reduced position to allow reliable healing. This illustrates the necessity of identifying associated injuries; for example, if a Jefferson fracture is identified but an associated odontoid fracture, transverse ligament fracture, or other problem is present, halo treatment may be modified or less successful. The transverse ligament is not necessarily expected to heal tightly or reliably, though a bony fracture would be expected to have mechanical integrity restored when healed.

With a C1 fracture, the posterior aspect of the ring becomes disconnected from the anterior aspect, which is stabilized around the odontoid; thus, a posterior fusion of the occiput to C1 would be inadequate to stabilize the spine and consequently would extend at a minimum to C2. Customarily, instrumentation attaches a type of contoured rod or plate from the occiput down to C2 to stabilize the area and facilitate healing.

Direct lateral mass screws have been reported, allowing reduction and compression across the fracture but also, more significantly, preserving upper cervical motion segments.[8] Occipital neuralgia has been reported with this technique,[9] so this technique will find its place in the author’s armamentarium with further reported experience.

A fractured odontoid fragment cannot be removed via the posterior approach; if a neurologic deficit or threat to the brainstem is present (the alar ligament may have an attached portion of the odontoid migrate superiorly into the foramen magnum to compress the brainstem at the pontomedullary junction), neurosurgical posterior decompression of the foramen magnum could be performed in a halo.

Alternative consideration may be given to a transoral approach or an anterior retropharyngeal approach for the combination of a Jefferson fracture and a fracture of the odontoid. The traditional treatment is a halo vest or cast until the Jefferson fracture is healed. Then, additionally, if the odontoid fracture healing has become delayed or a nonunion is present, this can be treated by a C1-2 arthrodesis, but the procedure must be delayed for the ring of C1 to heal.

For this combined fracture, an anterior open reduction and internal fixation of the odontoid may be performed, with two screws placed in an oblique fashion starting at the inferior anterior edge of C2 and directed cephalad to engage the odontoid. With a C1 fracture, this is done in conjunction with a halo vest.

An alternative would be a Magerl approach of a posterior open reduction, accompanied by internal fixation of C1-2. For this procedure, two screws are placed in an oblique fashion starting at the inferior edge of the C2 lamina, and then they cross the C1-2 facet joint between the vertebral artery, which is lateral, and the spinal cord and brainstem, which are medial.

The use of intraoperative computed tomography (CT) O-arm navigation to guide the placement of screws during surgical treatment of C1 and C2 fractures has been reported. In one study involving 17 patients (median age, 47.6 years), a total of 67 screws were placed.[10] Intraoperative CT revealed that 62 screws (92.6%) were placed correctly, 4 (5.9%) with minor cortical violation, and 1 (1.5%) incorrectly (immediately corrected). The findings suggested that intraoperative CT reduces the risk of screw misplacement and consequent complications.

In a study of 10 patients with unstable hangman fracture (age range, 17-81 years), 52 screws were placed under O-arm guidance (20 in C2 pedicle, 20 in C3 lateral mass, and 12 in C4 lateral mass).[11] One C2 pedicle screw (5%) was misplaced. At follow-up (range, 3-21 months), no new-onset neurologic deficits had developed. Bony fusion was achieved in all patients, and full rotation at C1-2 was preserved. The findings suggested that C2 pedicle screws can be precisely placed with O-arm guidance and that intraoperative CT can confirm screw position.


Preoperative Details

Patients must be maintained in protective immobilization — more than a soft collar for adults. Presumably, they are in a halo from the point of initial treatment. Reduction of an atlas fracture may be achieved by means of ligamentotaxis with mild traction; however, traction is very risky, and such highly unstable injuries must be monitored extremely closely. Associated fractures must be promptly identified to direct subsequent treatment. Congenital abnormalities of the arch (eg, agenesis of the posterior ring) must be identified and taken into account in the treatment plan.


Intraoperative Details

If the patient is awake and has a halo and vest applied, then the conversation and discussion with him or her during the procedure serves to demonstrate maintenance of safety and neurologic status. Patients who undergo surgical correction, particularly posterior arthrodesis, may be monitored with somatosensory evoked potentials.


Postoperative Details

After application of a halo, close radiographic follow-up is required to demonstrate that the fracture is maintained in a satisfactory position for healing. If surgical stabilization is appropriate, then monitoring the healing of the bone fusion with radiographs is also crucial postoperatively.



Patients in the halo require at least 8 weeks — most likely, 12 or more weeks — of immobilization until healing is documented on radiographs. This period is followed by one in which the patient is placed in a collar to protect the neck while he or she is being weaned from the halo and while the neck is gradually being rehabilitated in terms of intrinsic muscle stability and range of motion.



Patients with upper cervical instability are at risk for death; this risk is increased if the injury is not identified and recognized. Neurologic damage at this level could make the patient dependent on a ventilator; thus, extreme care is necessary in handling these patients during fracture healing.

Associated injuries to the occipitoatlantoaxial complex must be considered and included in the treatment plan. Devastating neurologic injuries may result from vascular embarrassment resulting from the instability of these injuries.


Outcome and Prognosis

Patients with Jefferson fractures are expected to heal and have an excellent prognosis for resumption of activity in the absence of associated injuries. Any surgical stabilization severely restricts the motion of the head, because the occipitoatlantoaxial complex represents over 50% of the motion of the head on the trunk.

Platzer et al studied nine patients (average age, 54 years) who underwent anterior plate fixation of an odontoid fracture because of unsuitability for anterior screw fixation.[12] After plate fixation, eight of the nine returned to their preinjury activity level and were satisfied with the treatment; one reported chronic pain and decreased cervical spine motion. Bony fusion was achieved in all patients; reduction or fixation failed in two. These findings suggested that anterior plate fixation may be a practical option for odontoid fractures requiring additional stabilization.

Al Eissa et al performed a retrospective review of 17 patients with isolated C1 and C2 fractures who experienced significant airway compromise.[13] Older age and male gender were found to be significant risk factors. Most patients also exhibited prevertebral swelling, significant degenerative changes, and significant fracture displacement. Of the 17 patients, 12 required intubation and admission to the intensive care unit; four died. The findings suggested that all patients with isolated C1 and C2 fractures should be assessed for potential airway compromise.


Future and Controversies

Disruption of the ring of C1 makes stabilization by a C1-2 fusion in the customary posterior fashion impossible; however, a C1-2 direct fixation with Magerl screws may stabilize the anterior ring to the body of C2. The role of this C1-2 fusion is not yet universally accepted, but with experience, the indications and role will be more clearly defined.

A transoral resection of C1 may be preferred to an alternative technique, decompression posteriorly to the foramen magnum, particularly for a migrating odontoid fragment from an associated type 2 Anderson-D'Alonzo odontoid fracture with a Jefferson fracture. A significant amount of rotation of the atlas on the axis would be lost with this fusion, but the fusion would preserve the flexion and extension of the occipital condyle and head on the lateral masses, which would also be lost in an occipital C2 fusion, which is the traditional approach.

With regard to C1-to-C2 fixation, wires have been used for a significant time with excellent results. Gallie described fusion where wires are passed onto the arch of C1 and into the spinous process of C2.[14]

In 1978, Brooks and Jenkins then presented a more stable construct.[15] Rather than placing the bone graft over the posterior elements, grafts are wedged between the posterior arch of C1 and C2, and the wires are passed under both C1 and C2, so that they can more effectively stabilize the bone grafts in their respective positions and increase the area for fusion. However, this procedure requires passing the wires more laterally, with careful attention to the vascular structures.

In 2002, Richter et al presented six different techniques for biomechanical comparison, preferring transarticular screws but considering isthmic screws with a claw or lateral mass screws and isthmic screws as an alternative with somewhat less immediate stability.[16]

A 2003 report by Cornefjord et al on a series of patients with Olerud cervical fixation has also been presented.[17] In this report, odontoid fracture occurred in 18 patients, rheumatoid instability in six, and odontoid nonunion and os odontoideum in one patient each, with clinical follow-up (20 patients followed for 6-27 months) suggesting no serious complications and a high frequency of fusion healing.

The posterior arch at C1 has minimal bone for the fusion to heal, and claw techniques to avoid passing sublaminar wires over the brainstem had some early discouraging results, leading to refinements and further investigation. Various techniques will continue to be compared and studied; this is clearly a challenging area.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Mark R Foster, MD, PhD, FACS President and Orthopedic Surgeon, Orthopedic Spine Specialists of Western Pennsylvania, PC

Mark R Foster, MD, PhD, FACS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Orthopaedic Research Society, Pennsylvania Orthopaedic Society, American Physical Society, American College of Surgeons, Christian Medical and Dental Associations, Eastern Orthopaedic Association, North American Spine Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

William O Shaffer, MD Orthopedic Spine Surgeon, Northwest Iowa Bone, Joint, and Sports Surgeons

William O Shaffer, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Orthopaedic Association, Kentucky Medical Association, North American Spine Society, Kentucky Orthopaedic Society, International Society for the Study of the Lumbar Spine, Southern Medical Association, Southern Orthopaedic Association

Disclosure: Received royalty from DePuySpine 1997-2007 (not presently) for consulting; Received grant/research funds from DePuySpine 2002-2007 (closed) for sacropelvic instrumentation biomechanical study; Received grant/research funds from DePuyBiologics 2005-2008 (closed) for healos study just closed; Received consulting fee from DePuySpine 2009 for design of offset modification of expedium.

Chief Editor

Jeffrey A Goldstein, MD Clinical Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, New York University School of Medicine; Director of Spine Service, Director of Spine Fellowship, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases, NYU Langone Medical Center

Jeffrey A Goldstein, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American College of Surgeons, American Orthopaedic Association, North American Spine Society, Scoliosis Research Society, Cervical Spine Research Society, International Society for the Study of the Lumbar Spine, AOSpine, Society of Lateral Access Surgery, International Society for the Advancement of Spine Surgery, Lumbar Spine Research Society

Disclosure: Received consulting fee from Medtronic for consulting; Received consulting fee from NuVasive for consulting; Received royalty from Nuvasive for consulting; Received consulting fee from K2M for consulting; Received ownership interest from NuVasive for none.

Additional Contributors

James F Kellam, MD, FRCSC, FACS, FRCS(Ire) Professor, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, University of Texas Medical School at Houston

James F Kellam, MD, FRCSC, FACS, FRCS(Ire) is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Orthopaedic Trauma Association, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

  1. North American Spine Society. Spinal cord injury. Available at: Accessed: November 13, 2006.

  2. White AA, Panjabi MM. Clinical Biomechanics of the Spine. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 1990.

  3. Aebi M. Surgical treatment of upper, middle and lower cervical injuries and non-unions by anterior procedures. Eur Spine J. 2009 Oct 14. [Medline].

  4. Elgafy H, Dvorak MF, Vaccaro AR, Ebraheim N. Treatment of displaced type II odontoid fractures in elderly patients. Am J Orthop. 2009 Aug. 38(8):410-6. [Medline].

  5. Jefferson G. Fracture of atlas vertebra. Report of four cases and a review of those previously recorded. Br J Surg. 1920. 7:407-22.

  6. Grauer JN, Shafi B, Hilibrand AS, et al. Proposal of a modified, treatment-oriented classification of odontoid fractures. Spine J. 2005 Mar-Apr. 5(2):123-9. [Medline].

  7. Sugrue PA, Hage ZA, Surdell DL, Foroohar M, Liu J, Bendok BR. Basilar artery occlusion following C1 lateral mass fracture managed by mechanical and pharmacological thrombolysis. Neurocrit Care. Oct/2008. 11:255-260.

  8. Li L, Teng H, Pan J, Qian L, Zeng C, Sun G, et al. Direct posterior c1 lateral mass screws compression reduction and osteosynthesis in the treatment of unstable jefferson fractures. Spine. Jul/2011. 36:E1046-51.

  9. De Iure F, Donthineni R, Boriani S. Outcomes of C1 and C2 posterior screw fixation for upper cervical spine fusion. Eur Spine J. Jun / 2009. 18 suppl:2-6.

  10. Costa F, Ortolina A, Attuati L, Cardia A, Tomei M, Riva M, et al. Management of C1-2 traumatic fractures using an intraoperative 3D imaging-based navigation system. J Neurosurg Spine. 2015 Feb. 22(2):128-33. [Medline].

  11. Singh PK, Garg K, Sawarkar D, Agarwal D, Satyarthee GD, Gupta D, et al. Computed tomography-guided C2 pedicle screw placement for treatment of unstable hangman fractures. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2014 Aug 15. 39(18):E1058-65. [Medline].

  12. Platzer P, Thalhammer G, Krumboeck A, Schuster R, Kutscha-Lissberg F, Zehetgruber I, et al. Plate fixation of odontoid fractures without C1-C2 arthrodesis: practice of a novel surgical technique for stabilization of odontoid fractures, including the opportunity to extend the fixation to C3. Neurosurgery. 2009 Apr. 64(4):726-33; discussion 733. [Medline].

  13. Al Eissa S, Reed JG, Kortbeek JB, Salo PT. Airway compromise secondary to upper cervical spine injury. J Trauma. 2009 Oct. 67(4):692-6. [Medline].

  14. Gallie WE. Fractures and dislocations of the cervical spine. Am J Surg. 1939. 46(3):495-9.

  15. Brooks AL, Jenkins EB. Atlanto-axial arthrodesis by the wedge compression method. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1978 Apr. 60(3):279-84. [Medline].

  16. Richter M, Schmidt R, Claes L, et al. Posterior atlantoaxial fixation: biomechanical in vitro comparison of six different techniques. Spine. 2002 Aug 15. 27(16):1724-32. [Medline].

  17. Cornefjord M, Henriques T, Alemany M, et al. Posterior atlanto-axial fusion with the Olerud Cervical Fixation System for odontoid fractures and C1-C2 instability in rheumatoid arthritis. Eur Spine J. 2003 Feb. 12(1):91-6. [Medline].

  18. Alker GJ, Oh YS, Leslie EV, et al. Postmortem radiology of head neck injuries in fatal traffic accidents. Radiology. 1975 Mar. 114(3):611-7. [Medline].

  19. Anderson LD, D''Alonzo RT. Fractures of the odontoid process of the axis. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1974 Dec. 56(8):1663-74. [Medline].

  20. Bucholz RW, Burkhead WZ. The pathological anatomy of fatal atlanto-occipital dislocations. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1979 Mar. 61(2):248-50. [Medline].

  21. Budin E, Sondheimer F. Lateral spread of the atlas without fracture. Radiology. 1966 Dec. 87(6):1095-8. [Medline].

  22. Eismont FJ, Bohlman HH. Posterior atlanto-occipital dislocation with fractures of the atlas and odontoid process. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1978 Apr. 60(3):397-9. [Medline].

  23. Eleraky MA, Theodore N, Adams M, et al. Pediatric cervical spine injuries: report of 102 cases and review of the literature. J Neurosurg. 2000 Jan. 92(1 Suppl):12-7. [Medline].

  24. Eubanks JD, Gilmore A, Bess S, et al. Clearing the pediatric cervical spine following injury. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2006 Sep. 14(9):552-64. [Medline].

  25. Evarts CM. Traumatic occipito-atlantal dislocation. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1970 Dec. 52(8):1653-60. [Medline].

  26. Gabrielsen TO, Maxwell JA. Traumatic atlanto-occipital dislocation; with case report of a patient who survived. Am J Roentgenol Radium Ther Nucl Med. 1966 Jul. 97(3):624-9. [Medline].

  27. Garber JN. Abnormalities of the atlas and axis vertebrae--congenital and traumatic. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1964 Dec. 46:1782-91. [Medline].

  28. Hamilton MG, Myles ST. Pediatric spinal injury: review of 174 hospital admissions. J Neurosurg. 1992 Nov. 77(5):700-4. [Medline].

  29. Hinchey JJ, Bickel WH. Fracture of the atlas: review and presentation of data on eight cases. Ann Surg. 1945 Jun. 121(6):826-32. [Full Text].

  30. Johnson RM, Hart DL, Simmons EF, et al. Cervical orthoses. A study comparing their effectiveness in restricting cervical motion in normal subjects. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1977 Apr. 59(3):332-9. [Medline].

  31. Levine AM, Edwards CC. Fractures of the atlas. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1991 Jun. 73(5):680-91. [Medline].

  32. Levine AM, Edwards CC. Treatment of injuries in the C1-C2 complex. Orthop Clin North Am. 1986 Jan. 17(1):31-44. [Medline].

  33. Lipson SJ. Fractures of the atlas associated with fractures of the odontoid process and transverse ligament ruptures. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1977 Oct. 59(7):940-3. [Medline].

  34. McAfee PC. Jefferson's fracture. Frymoyer JW, Weinstein JN, Ducker TB, Kostuik JP, Hadler NM, eds. Adult Spine: Principles and Practice. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 1991. 1067.

  35. No authors listed. Isolated fractures of the atlas in adults. Neurosurgery. 2002 Mar. 50(3 suppl):S120-4. [Medline].

  36. No authors listed. Management of combination fractures of the atlas and axis in adults. Neurosurgery. 2002 Mar. 50(3 suppl):S140-7. [Medline].

  37. Oda T, Panjabi MM, Crisco JJ 3rd, et al. Experimental study of atlas injuries. II. Relevance to clinical diagnosis and treatment. Spine. 1991 Oct. 16(10 suppl):S466-73. [Medline].

  38. Panjabi MM, Oda T, Crisco JJ 3rd, et al. Experimental study of atlas injuries. I. Biomechanical analysis of their mechanisms and fracture patterns. Spine. 1991 Oct. 16(10 suppl):S460-5. [Medline].

  39. Patel JC, Tepas JJ, Mollitt DL, et al. Pediatric cervical spine injuries: defining the disease. J Pediatr Surg. 2001 Feb. 36(2):373-6. [Medline].

  40. Penning L, Wilmink JT. Rotation of the cervical spine. A CT study in normal subjects. Spine. 1987 Oct. 12(8):732-8. [Medline].

  41. Pierce DS, Barr JS Jr. Fractures and dislocations at the base of the skull and upper cervical spine. In: Bailey RW, ed. The Cervical Spine. Philadelphia, Pa:. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins. 1983: 196-206.

  42. Richards PG. Stable fractures of the atlas and axis in children. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1984 Aug. 47(8):781-3. [Medline].

  43. Schellhas KP, Latchaw RE, Wendling LR, et al. Vertebrobasilar injuries following cervical manipulation. JAMA. 1980 Sep 26. 244(13):1450-3. [Medline].

  44. Sherk HH, Nicholson JT. Fractures of the atlas. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1970 Jul. 52(5):1017-24. [Medline].

  45. Sherk HH, Schut L, Lane JM. Fractures and dislocations of the cervical spine in children. Orthop Clin North Am. 1976 Jul. 7(3):593-604. [Medline].

  46. Spence KF Jr, Decker S, Sell KW. Bursting atlantal fracture associated with rupture of the transverse ligament. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1970 Apr. 52(3):543-9. [Medline].

  47. Wetzel SG, Martin JB, Somon T, et al. Painful osteolytic metastasis of the atlas: treatment with percutaneous vertebroplasty. Spine. 2002 Nov 15. 27(22):E493-5. [Medline].

  48. White AA 3rd, Panjabi MM. The clinical biomechanics of the occipitoatlantoaxial complex. Orthop Clin North Am. 1978 Oct. 9(4):867-78. [Medline].

Fracture of C1 ring may result in lateral displacement and subsequent overhang on open mouth view in radiographs.
Computed tomography is often best for visualizing C1 ring fractures. Note anterior disruption, which must be accompanied by another break in ring.
Computed tomography sagittal views can be used to evaluate atlantodental (or atlantodens or atlas-dens) interval or to visualize C1 fractures.
All material on this website is protected by copyright, Copyright © 1994-2016 by WebMD LLC. This website also contains material copyrighted by 3rd parties.