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.”
Symptoms of a bulging disc differ a lot depending on the location of the herniation. The degree and location of the pain are also different for patients. In the case of a cervical herniated disc, the pain can radiate down the arm and in some cases into the hand. The pain can also be located in the shoulders and in the neck, especially when you turn your head or bend.
Among the herniated disc symptoms are also numbness and tingling. Weakness can also be a sign of a herniated disc.
Some slipped disc symptoms, especially pain, pain can be relieved by certain movements, as they release pressure on nerves. For example, by holding arms behind the head.
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 are usually performed to confirm a suspected cervical hernia. An X-ray is used to see a narrowing in vertebrae or arthritic changes, bone spurs, and fractures. CT scan, or computerized tomography, can show soft tissue problems such as ruptured discs, narrowing of the spinal canal, or tumors. Magnetic resonance imaging is performed to produce images to pinpoint certain serious problems around the spine, including infections, tumors, or fractures. There’s also a special nerve conduction study, which measures electrical nerve impulses and functioning. A doctor uses electrodes to both stimulate nerves running to muscles and record the nerve’s electrical signals. Nerve conduction studies can detect nerve damage.
The good news is, most painful cervical hernias resolve within weeks using conservative, nonsurgical herniated disc treatment, Dr. Liu says. Treatment can include:
- Short period of rest
- Neck collar or brace to help you limit mobility in the affected area
- Applying cold or heat packs to the aching spot to relieve some pain
- 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 open surgery and a hospital stay.
One of the available surgery options is anterior cervical discectomy and fusion, which targets the removal of herniated material via a small incision in the front of your neck.
Spinal fusion involves inserting a metal plate and screws to hold bone graft between the vertebrae.
Artificial disc replacement allows mimicking a disc’s natural motion, while fusion eliminates motion.
Minimally invasive discectomy is also performed via a small incision but this time it’s in the back of the neck.
“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.”
Exercises and muscle release techniques can be used both as short-term pain relieving means and as a part of neck pain treatment and prevention.
Remember that in training, regularity is key. So, it’s better to perform several exercises on a daily basis rather than have one intense workout once a month. Regular physical activity can also help you maintain a healthy body weight, which is quite important as excess weight increases the pressure on the spine and promotes pain.
It’s better to consult a doctor before starting the exercise program, but in most cases, patients are advised to perform low-impact aerobic activities and gentle stretching exercises. Aerobic activities boost heart health and increase blood flow to muscles and tissues. Stretching exercises improve flexibility in the heck, shoulders, and arms, which prevents strains and sprains.
Yoga is usually used as a complementary step in a herniated disc treatment plan. But it also helps to stretch and strengthen your muscles and prevent neck issues. Mind that yoga can be traumatic, so try to do it with a trainer.
Neck pain can also be triggered by chronic stress that makes your muscles stiff. Learning stress-management techniques, participating in counseling, and meditating are among ways to lower the amount of stress you face, and therefore reduce muscle stiffness.
Another tip would be to invest in a high-quality mattress, pillow and chair. As most people have a sedentary lifestyle now, having a good chair and table that allows you to maintain a healthy posture all the time is of high importance.
Has your neck been bothering you for quite a while? Ask our team how we can help: Contact Atlantic Spine Center