Cervical collars and neck braces have been used for thousands of years, but new designs and materials have made them more and more effective. They are often named for their inventor, such as the Benjamin-Taylor, Thomas and Guilford, by their design description, like the SOMI (sternal occipital mandibular immobilizer) or even where they were designed, as in Philadelphia, Malibu or Miami.
The designs of main types of cervical collars vary by the degree of neck support they provide in the treatment of various neck injuries; the right choice for you depends on the amount of movement in the head and neck regions that your doctor wants you to have.
Besides cervical collars that totally immobilize these areas in an emergency situation, like a traumatic accident, a protective neck brace is usually prescribed to restrict motion to prevent pain during healing and/or to offer stability and support before or after surgery. By limiting muscle use and movement, a cervical collar allows soft tissues to heal. Keep in mind that the more protection you need, the more rigid the cervical neck collar, and the more you might find it uncomfortable. However, that potentially uncomfortable positioning is what’s required for it to function properly. Before loosening the tension, talk to your doctor or physical therapist so that you don’t negate the value of wearing the device.
Cervical neck collar materials. Cervical neck collars are made of materials with varying degrees of firmness and function including dense contoured foam, plastic and metal. They are designed to fit snugly and fasten with Velcro, often with a hook and loop closure. Typically the collars rest just under the chin and many offer a lip or shelf that the chin rests on. Their contours are shaped along the clavicle, or collar bone, toward the shoulders for a more comfortable fit. Some designs feature a cutout in the front of the neck where a tracheotomy can be performed or a respirator attached as needed and a pulse in the carotid artery can be taken. There should be cushioning or lining on rigid cervical collars to protect skin from developing an irritation and sores. Some have removable pads or fabric to wick away perspiration. Most materials are imaging testing “lucent,” meaning that they won’t block a CT, MRI or other scan, so these diagnostic tests can be done with the collar in place.
Neck brace sizing. To find the right size, you’ll typically need to take two measurements—the height of the cervical collar is the measurement from the tip of your chin to the top of your sternum, the bone you can feel at the base of your throat, and the circumference is simply the circumference of your neck.
Cervical collar styles. Foam or soft cervical collars are made of dense foam with a soft covering. The leading designs in more protective neck braces include these models:
The Patriot is a one-piece cervical collar that offers chin support and is easily adjustable to a variety of positions.
The Philadelphia is a two-piece cervical collar often used in emergencies because it is designed with an opening that allows for an emergency tracheotomy as well as taking a pulse at the carotid artery.
The Atlas cervical collar is a two-piece design that can be used long term to restrict neck movement during recovery from an injury or surgery. It can be adjusted to balance stability and comfort and has rear panel ventilation for breathability.
The Miami J is considered the gold standard of immobilizers with a unique sizing system and various front and back support components that work together to create the best fit.
Note that there can be negative effects from wearing a neck brace, including even a soft cervical collar for too long. Always follow your doctor’s advice for the type of cervical collar to use and guidelines for wearing it. This is not a product that you should diagnose for yourself.