How did this man survive having his skull disconnected from his spine?

So I was watching Ripley’s Believe It or Not a night or two ago. For the unfamiliar, it shows people either doing very, very weird or extraordinary feats or people that suffered terrible accidents and are…unusual. Like a guy that had no face.

Anyway, this one guy was in a gruesome car accident – head on collision, fire, blackened wreckage, and all the good stuff. I forget the exact details, but basically his skin, ligaments, and muscles of his neck were OK…the problem is that his skull disconnected from his spine. So it was basically floating around in his…skin sac of a head…(yummy visuals).

Anyway, the doctors bolted his head back on his neck. The operation took several hours. My question: how is this possible? Wouldn’t severing your neck like that kill you instantly?

Aside from using a cane to walk and being a little unbalanced he seemed fine afterward.

Just a WAG, but the spinal cord needs to break for him to be paralysed, and I suspect people can even survive spinal cord damange that high up. I think Christopher Reeve’s spinal cord was damaged that high up.

Yeah, he probably didn’t have any (or very little) spinal cord damage. I imagine the doctors were extremely careful when operating. Even transporting the guy was a risk in itself.

I would also WAG that his head wasn’t detached and flopping around like a sack of beans. He likely had a fracture of the spinal cord but there had to be little or no movement of the spinal cord to prevent serious permanent injury.

Also, WAG that Ripley’s is full of nonsense.

Here’s a question…why can’t the spinal cord repair itself if it’s reattached?

Because nerve cells either don’t regenerate, or do so at an obnoxiously slow pace.

IIRC, that is what is called a basal skull fracture and isn’t that the same thing that killed Dale Earnhart and Ayrton Senna? It is a common injury in high speed head-on collisions when the head is violently thrown forward.

Saw something similar on one of those “World’s Most Amazing Injuries” type shows. A little girl was driving a go-cart and got hit by an SUV. The truck’s bumper wedged underneath her helmet and dislocated her skull from her spine in much the same way the OP describes. The EMT found her with no pulse, no resp. but successfully revived her. He didn’t know the extent of her injuries, but before putting on a C-collar, “instinct” told him not to. As it turned out, the C-collar would have paralyzed or killed her.

She did suffer brain damage from the cardiac arrest, but was able to walk again.

What is being discribed sounds more like an odontoid fracture or a Jefferson fracture They are both fractures of the vertebrae that hold the head and verterbral column together. Both are survivable if the patient’s cord isn’t injured in the initial accident, and they are properly secured in transit. The first link, above, speaks to the surgical intervention.

My understanding is that former NBA player (and recent coach of the Rockets and Lakers) Rudy Tomjanovich suffered exactly this injury during his playing days in the late 70s. Longtime pro basketball fans have undoubtedly seen “The Punch” thrown by Kermit Washington against an unsuspecting Tomjanovich.

Oh, and to address basilar skull fractures, they are not, as one would expect without knowing the anatomy of the skull, near the spinal column. The base of the skull is the area above the sinuses, the eye sockets.
Basilar skull fracturesare less survivable than spinal cord injuries, in that the brain tends to shift over the rough bone and cause massive bleeding. The bleeding causes such an increase in intracrainal pressure, that the brain is forced into the Foraman Magna, the opening where the spinal column attaches. The first area of damage when this happens is the reticular activating center which is the area that keeps us awake (its also called the arrousal center, but knowing this crowd…:dubious:)
Hope this clears things up a bit.
M :dubious:

And even if they did, the local healing processes would have no way to ‘know’ how to correctly reconnect the broken ends of the individual neurons.

Is this at the Foramen Magnum?

Because if nerve cells DID regenerate, these dehabilitating disorders would be much less common.

And you’re right about the neurons. You’re born with a certain number (It’s in the billions) of neurons and that’s all you get. They don’t regenerate if they die or are damaged.

Well, we’re not so certain of that as we once were. It does seem that some regeneration can take place. Unfortunately it’s not real effective. Research is ongoing.

They do, as mentioned. The regeneration seems to be limited to the more plastic brain regions. I guess that’s obvious. The more constantly changing areas of the brain… might be a better description. IIRC, a majority of brain cells can regenerate. Most won’t, because regeneration occurs only during specific situations(which might be toxic, overall). I doubt it is possible to prevent death without killing yourself, essentially. Poisons are probably essential to a person’s continued existence.

Picunurse, basilar skull fractures can cause the bleeding slowly though…there are people who are only diagnosed by the “raccoon eyes”- double black eyes-from the blood seeping under the skin.

With a good neurosurgeon, and an early diagnosis it’s quite survivable, as long as the blood loss isn’t from a severed artery, and the blood is oozing, rather than flooding into the brain.

Basilar fractures happen quite a lot in Ireland because of one of our national sports. Hurling is a bit like field hockey, but faster, and without the “no stick above the waist rule”. Quite a few of the players (yes, even the top players…there are no professionals, it’s completely amateur) don’t wear helmets, and a ball to the head is not uncommon. There is always a high suspicion for basilar fractures, and they’re usually diagnosed very quickly.

It is joked that that is why the national centre for neurosurgery is in the hospital nearest to Croke Park, the national GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) Stadium.

I can’t find the story, but I remember this being in the news about a year ago. The victim was in his late teens/early 20’s, and while his skull was still attached to the spine, the connecting muscles and ligaments were severed. Last I heard, he was walking again and recovering steadily.