Cervical disc damage has many different causes. It can be caused by an injury or due to the natural processes of aging and daily wear and tear. In this article, we will discuss the main causes of cervical disc damage: spinal degeneration and herniated discs.
Cervical disc disease is a general name for a group of degenerative cervical disc disorders that results in annular tears, nuclear degradation, and compression of the disc. This ultimately leads to osteoarthritis of the neck, often referred to as cervical spondylosis, which may cause pinching of the spinal nerves. Symptoms may include neck pain, pain radiating down the shoulder and arm, sensory problems, and motor or reflex abnormalities.
Spinal degeneration is caused by age and injury. Repeated overuse of the back, strains, sprains, poor posture, obesity, smoking, and inactivity produce gradual degeneration of the spinal discs. Most people experience degenerative changes causing a loss of normal function or structure beginning around age 40.
A herniated or ruptured disc happens when the outer structure of the disc (annulus) weakens and the inner core begins to protrude through the weakened annulus. Herniated disc material then pinches the spinal nerves. It can go unnoticed, but may cause extreme pain.
What are symptoms of a herniated cervical disc?
Herniated discs can cause many kinds of pain or sometimes no pain at all. An aching neck, arm, or hand, numbness or weakness, or electric-shock type pain that shoots into these areas are common. In rare cases, the numbness, pain, or weakness can affect both sides of the body or the lower body. Loss of bladder or bowel control or partial paralysis are also possible in severe cases.
Symptoms of a herniated cervical disc often flare-up or worsen during sports or other activities, and with some head positions or sudden head movements.
Is a cervical herniated disc serious?
A cervical herniated disc is serious, but it can often be resolved successfully with pain killers and anti-inflammatory drugs. Physical therapy, heat, massage, and ultrasound often help reduce the muscle spasms and pain. When the pain is severe and these treatments don’t help, cortisone injections or epidural blocks may be prescribed for the pain and inflammation. In about 10 to 30 percent of cases, surgery is necessary to repair the disc and relieve the pain.
How neck surgery can fix a bulging disc
There are several different options for repairing a herniated or bulging disc. Which one your surgeon recommends depends on the type of injury you have and your test results. In some cases, your surgeon may recommend a combination of surgeries.
- A Laminotomy is a minimally invasive procedure in which your surgeon makes a small incision in the back of the neck and removes a small portion of the vertebral arch to relieve pressure on the compressed nerve. The surgery is often done as an outpatient.
- Artificial disc replacement surgery involves removing the damaged disc from the front and replacing it with a metal and plastic disc that preserves motion in the cervical spine. This procedure may be done as an outpatient, or may require one night in the hospital.
- Anterior Cervical discectomy and fusion also involves removing the damaged disc from the front and fusing two or more vertebrae together permanently. It involves replacing the disc with a metal or plastic cage, or bone graft, and then a metal plate and screws are placed on the front of the spine to prevent any motion. The fused portion of the spine will be immobilized. Again, this may be done as an outpatient or a short hospitalization may be required for spinal fusion.
How long does it take a herniated cervical disc to heal?
It is impossible to say exactly how long it will take your herniated or bulging disc to heal. Young, healthy people often heal within weeks or months, while older people take longer. Some will never heal. Age, the degree of damage, and how you treat it may make a difference.
You can speed up healing in several ways:
- Rest and protect the neck and back. It is impossible to remove all pressure from the cervical disc, but by reducing or stopping physical exercise, you take off much of the pressure and allow it to heal.
- Eat a healthy diet and stay hydrated. You need your vitamins and minerals to heal.
- Follow your doctor’s advice on range of motion exercises and light exercise.
- Complete all your recommended physical therapy exercises.
- If you had surgery, keep the site clean and dry and follow your doctor’s instructions completely.
In many cases, a herniated disc will heal within a year using only anti-inflammatories and completing a course of physical therapy. In cases where a Laminotomy or Disc Replacement is performed, you may be able to resume normal activities within a few weeks and be completely healed within a few months.