Why you should wear your seatbelt on an airplane: Burst fracture of the atlas (jefferson fracture) due to in-flight turbulence

Nikola Lekic, Jonathan Sheu, Hayley Ennis, Nathan Lebwohl, Motasem Al-Maaieh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The Jefferson fracture is a burst-type fracture to the atlas first described in 1919, characterized by anterior and posterior fractures of the weak C1 ring caused by a sudden axial load to the vertex of the skull. Here we report a Jefferson fracture caused by head trauma due to mid-flight turbulence in an unrestrained 56-year-old male airline passenger. Imaging revealed a comminuted burst fracture of the atlas with an avulsion fracture of the transverse atlantal ligament. The patient was treated conservatively in a Miami-J collar with close clinical and radiographic follow-up. Lateral flexion-extension radiographs demonstrated fracture stability, and clinically the patient lacked pain or neurologic symptoms at 12 weeks from injury. To our knowledge this is the first report of a Jefferson fracture caused by axial compression attributable to in-flight turbulence. Traditionally associated with automobile crashes and diving headfirst into shallow pools, the axial load results in a compressive force to the atlas and subsequent lateral separation of the two halves of the C1 vertebral ring. The purpose of this case study is to alert providers, aircraft personnel, and passengers of the inherent risk of air travel and the importance of wearing a seatbelt at all times, describe the signs and symptoms of this often-overlooked fracture, and provide general treatment guidelines based on radiographic assessments of fracture stability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)78-82
Number of pages5
JournalJournal of Orthopaedics
StatePublished - Jan 1 2020


  • Air travel
  • Atlas
  • Cervical spine
  • Jefferson fracture
  • Non-operative
  • Trauma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine


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