Problems that nag us often get labeled a “pain in the neck.” But there’s an actual pain in the neck called a cervical disc herniation that can create a host of troublesome symptoms, necessitating treatment, according to Kaixuan Liu MD, PhD, founder of Atlantic Spine Center.
What’s a cervical disc herniation? For the uninitiated, it’s a disc in the neck region of the spine that deteriorates, pressing on nerves leading from the affected disc. Resulting symptoms from this compression include pain and weakness in the neck as well as in the arms and/or shoulders, explains Dr. Liu, who is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive spine surgery.
“Many people have heard about herniated discs in the spine, but fewer realize this herniation – which means the disc has slipped out of its normal spot between two bony vertebrae – can also happen in the neck,” Dr. Liu says. “It doesn’t happen as often, but the array of symptoms a cervical hernia can provoke ranges from minimal to disabling.”
Causes and Diagnosis
How does a cervical disc herniation happen? The condition has many possible causes and risk factors, Dr. Liu says. It can stem from an injury, such as from a sports mishap or auto accident; aging; improper lifting technique; heredity; or smoking.
“We can’t always prevent a cervical hernia, but there are ways to lower our risks,” Dr. Liu says. “We can avoid harmful habits like smoking and should lift heavy items more carefully, using our legs instead of our backs.”
Getting a formal diagnosis if you’re experiencing cervical disc herniation symptoms may require several tests. First, your doctor will examine you thoroughly, paying particular attention to the location and type of your pain and/or weakness.
Tests to confirm a suspected cervical hernia include:
- CT (computed tomography) scan
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan
- Nerve conduction studies to look for evidence of nerve damage
The good news is, most painful cervical hernias resolve within weeks using conservative, nonsurgical treatments, Dr. Liu says. These include:
- Short period of rest
- Neck collar or brace
- NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen to relieve pain, swelling and inflammation
- Other over the counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as acetaminophen
- Prescription-strength muscle relaxants
- Oral steroids or steroid injections to cut inflammation and pain, especially for those with more severe arm and neck pain
- Physical therapy
“Many times, your doctor will recommend a combination of conservative treatments to relieve your pain and improve your condition,” Dr. Liu explains.
If symptoms don’t resolve or worsen after 6 or more weeks, Dr. Liu says surgery may be an option to remove the part of the spinal disc pressing on nerves. Sometimes this type of surgery can be done with a minimally invasive approach that uses small incisions and allows patients to go home the same day. Other cases involve an open surgery and a hospital stay.
“But in most cases, pain from a herniated disc in the neck gets better quickly,” he adds. “Your best bet is seeing your doctor to figure out your options.”
Has your neck been bothering your for quite a while? Ask our team how we can help: Contact Atlantic Spine Center