When a pain in the neck gets out of hand, it may be the result of a cervical hernia which is a disc in the spine that deteriorates and presses on nerves in the neck region. Luckily, many treatment options can be effective for this nagging condition, according to Dr. Kaixuan Liu.
Many people have heard of herniated, or slipped, discs in the spine, Dr. Liu says, but fewer are aware that this common problem can occur in the neck as well as the lower back. When a cervical hernia occurs, however, it can cause pain and weakness in the neck, arms and/or shoulders. These are areas “fed” by the nerves extending from spinal discs in the neck.
Only about 8% of herniated spinal discs occur in the neck region, Dr. Liu also notes.
“Sometimes herniated discs in the neck cause no pain or very few symptoms,” explains Dr. Liu, who is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive spine surgery. “But the range of potential symptoms or disability caused by a cervical hernia is wide. It’s important to understand why it may have happened and what can be done to remedy it.”
Causes of cervical hernia:
Picture a jelly doughnut: That’s pretty much what spinal discs – which cushion the impact between joints in the spine – look like. When a spinal disc in the neck deteriorates, leaking or spilling out its gel-like contents from the tough disc wall, surrounding nerves can then become inflamed.
But what triggers a cervical hernia? Dr. Liu says causes and risk factors include:
- Injury, such as from sports or auto accidents
- Improper lifting technique
“It’s not always possible to prevent a cervical hernia, though there are ways to lower our risks,” Dr. Liu says. “Herniated discs are actually most common in middle-aged individuals, although we’re slightly more at risk if we’re involved in strenuous physical activity.”
Tips on treatment options
Once a cervical hernia is diagnosed, which is done by clinical exam and imaging tests such as CT and MRI scans, treatment includes an array of possibilities. Since most herniated discs in the neck resolve with nonsurgical, “conservative” treatments, these are recommended first, Dr. Liu says.
Nonsurgical treatments include:
- Over-the-counter NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) to relive pain and inflammation, such as aspirin, naproxen and ibuprofen
- Over-the-counter analgesic pain medications such as acetaminophen
- Prescribed muscle relaxants
- Oral steroids or steroid injections to relieve inflammation and pain
- Physical therapy
Surgical treatment may be necessary if cervical hernia pain doesn’t resolve after 6 weeks or so. Depending on the extent of the problem and the surgeon’s approach, the surgery may be minimally invasive – allowing patients to go home the same day – or involve open surgery requiring a hospital stay.
“But in most cases, pain from a herniated disc in the neck will get better within a few days and go away completely within 4 to 6 weeks,” Dr. Liu says. “When in doubt, or if you’re experiencing lingering pain, ask your doctor regarding next steps. There’s no need to suffer in silence with a cervical hernia.”
Featured in HealthNewsDigest.com: Treating a Herniated Cervical Disc Often Highly Effective