If you’re suffering from a cervical herniated disc, this information is for you. We’ll talk about the signs and symptoms of herniated discs, as well as treatments that may be available.
Cervical herniated discs are very common. Chances are you or someone you know will suffer from chronic neck pain caused by a herniated cervical disc at some point. A cervical herniated disc is often quite painful and can cause you to lose feeling in your arms, making things like walking or even brushing your teeth difficult. We review what every adult should know about cervical herniated discs.
A cervical disc herniates when the relatively soft inner part of the disc (nucleus pulposus) breaks through the relatively tough outer part (annulus fibrosus). When the cervical disc herniates, the area becomes inflamed, and parts of the cervical disc can press on the surrounding nerves, causing symptoms.
A cervical disc can herniate slowly or rapidly. Over time, the outer portion of the cervical disc dries out (desiccates) and sustains damage through the stress and strains of everyday life. This aging process and life’s daily traumas add up and, at some point, become too much for the disc. In most cases, the cervical disc simply herniates without warning, causing severe pain and symptoms. Less often, the cervical disc may herniate rapidly, say after a car accident or a fall. If this occurs, the disc is forcefully pressed out of its natural space, also causing pain and symptoms.
Unfortunately, yes, a cervical herniated disc can cause permanent nerve damage. As long as nerves are not severed completely, they are fairly resilient. When a herniated disc pinches a nerve, the nerve responds by sending pain signals to the brain. The pinched nerve also has difficulty transmitting signals of sensation and movement, leading to numbness and weakness, respectively. We know nerves are resilient because people regain sensation after artificial disc replacement after the cervical herniated disc has been removed. Sadly, if a pinched nerve is left untreated for too long, the nerve may never fully recover, and the patient is left with permanent nerve damage caused by a cervical herniated disc.
The most common symptoms of a cervical herniated disc are pain, numbness, and weakness. While pain in the neck is common, the pain of a cervical herniated disc is usually worst in the shoulder or arm on the affected side. The numbness caused by a cervical herniated disc is usually not complete numbness, like the numbness caused by local anesthetic during a dental procedure. Instead, the affected area may have partial numbness along with a pins and needles sensation, as if the arm was “asleep.” This sensation is called paresthesia. A severe cervical disc herniation can cause profound weakness in the arm. More often, the patient simply loses some, but not all, of the strength in the affected arm. For example, it may be difficult to firmly shake someone’s hand or hold a cup of coffee securely.
Conservative treatments for cervical disc herniation include wearing a neck collar, physical therapy, and pain medications. If these treatments do not provide relief, a steroid injection into the affected area can reduce inflammation and symptoms. If conservative treatments fail, surgery may be the only effective cervical herniated disc treatment. The two main treatments are cervical spinal fusion and cervical artificial disc replacement. Both spinal fusion and artificial disc replacement can relieve the symptoms of a cervical herniated disc, but artificial disc replacement can preserve mobility in the neck to a greater degree than spinal fusion can.
Symptoms of an acute cervical herniated disc will improve in about three out of four people with conservative therapy alone. With rest, physical therapy, pain medications, and certain other conservative measures, most patients will recover most or all of their function within six weeks. Unfortunately, if the pain lasts longer than six weeks, it could indicate that the herniated cervical disc may not recover, and a surgical treatment like cervical artificial disc replacement may be needed.
No, not exactly. Once a disc has herniated, it will no longer return to its normal shape and position. However, the symptoms of a cervical herniated disc may lessen or resolve with time. For example, a cervical disc may herniate and become inflamed, causing symptoms. Once the inflammation in the area resolves, the symptoms may also resolve, but the cervical disc is still herniated. Over time the herniated disc fragment may resorb in the body. A natural healing process.
Yes, but this is uncommon. In most cases, a herniated cervical disc will press on the nerves that serve the neck, shoulder, and arms. However, if the cervical herniated disc presses on the spinal cord, it can cause symptoms in the leg, usually pain, weakness, and/or numbness.
Yes, though usually indirectly. Many people with degenerative disc disease in their cervical spine experience dizziness. Likewise, people with degenerative disc disease in their cervical spine may have a herniated cervical disc. Importantly, there are many other causes of cervicogenic dizziness like whiplash injury or spinal bone spurs. A herniated disc pressing on the C2 nerve can cause eye or ear pain and headache, however.
No, not exactly. The regions of the brain that create, store, and recall our memories are not directly linked to the cervical spine. Therefore, a herniated cervical disc is not going to cause memory problems directly. However, people who have chronic nerve pain may find it difficult to concentrate, pay attention, and think. This could create a situation in which someone has trouble forming new memories and completing complex tasks.
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