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Cervical disk herniation: causes, symptoms & treatment

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 6 minutes read

Disk herniation, also known as a slipped or ruptured disk, occurs when the soft cushion-like disks between the vertebrae in the spine get damaged or shift out of place. Symptoms are characterized by a sudden onset of pain (usually back pain or neck pain).

Cervical disk herniation describes a disk prolapse in one of the intervertebral disks in the neck. This can cause pain in the neck along with numbness, tingling or weakness in the arms. Cervical disk herniation can also cause severe symptoms of weakness of the legs and even affect the ability to walk properly.

In this guide, we explore cervical disk herniation to help you understand what it is, causes, its symptoms, treatment options, and prevention strategies.

Doctor’s advice

What causes cervical disk herniation?

The spine consists of bones (vertebrae) that are stacked upon one another. Each vertebra is connected to the other by an intervertebral disk. The intervertebral disks help increase the flexibility of the spine and function as shock absorbers. Each individual intervertebral disk consists of a tough outer fibrous layer surrounding a gelatinous inner layer.

Cervical disk herniation usually occurs when one of the disks in the neck's spinal column becomes damaged and starts to protrude. This can result from factors such as ageing, wear and tear, poor posture, a specific injury, or sudden trauma. As we age, our intervertebral disks become stiffer and are more at risk of rupturing.

A cervical disk herniation, or slipped disk in the neck, can describe a tear of the outer fibrous layer of the intervertebral disk, with or without protrusion of some of the inner jelly-like layer. In a cervical disk herniation, a tear of the outer fibrous layer can cause significant pain that is usually localized to the neck.

If there is also bulging of the inner gelatinous layer that irritates or compresses one of the nerves around the spine, this can result in significant pain, numbness, weakness or tingling that extends into one or both arms.

Symptoms of cervical disk herniation

When it comes to cervical disk herniation, the symptoms can be quite noticeable. People often experience:

●    Neck pain: This might radiate down into the shoulders, arms, or even the hands.

●    Numbness or tingling sensations: This can occur in the shoulders, arms or hands.

●    Weakness in the arm muscles: You might experience difficulty with coordination or gripping objects.

●    Pain that worsens when sneezing or coughing: You might notice a sudden pain when the neck jolts with sneezing, coughing or laughing.

If you're facing any of these issues, it's a good idea to reach out to a medical professional. They can guide you on the best steps to take for relief.

How long does cervical disk herniation pain last?

In most instances, the pain from a disk herniation gets better on its own and does not require any treatment. Nine out of ten people with a disk herniation will improve within six weeks.

Occasionally, if a disk herniation is very large or in certain locations, it can cause compression of the spinal cord or certain important nerves. This can cause the pain to persist for longer periods. In these rare instances, more urgent investigation and treatment may be required.

If the pain continues, this can be managed with painkillers. If the pain persists beyond the six-week timeframe or if it's causing significant disruption to your daily life, it's important to consult a healthcare professional.

Treatment options for a cervical herniated disk

There are various treatments available for cervical disk herniation. Here are a few options:

●    Conservative measures: Rest, avoiding activities that worsen the pain, and using over-the-counter pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medications can help manage symptoms. Physical therapy can also be beneficial, focusing on exercises to strengthen neck and shoulder muscles, improve posture, and increase flexibility.

●    Medications: Your healthcare provider might prescribe stronger pain medications or muscle relaxants to help alleviate discomfort. In some cases, steroid injections directly into the affected area can provide relief by reducing inflammation.

●    Surgery: If conservative methods don't provide relief and the pain is severe or worsening, surgery might be considered. Procedures like diskectomy (removal of the herniated disk material) or cervical fusion (joining two vertebrae together) might be recommended.

●    Chiropractic care: Some individuals find relief through chiropractic adjustments, which involve manual manipulation of the spine to help alleviate pressure on the affected nerve.

●    Acupuncture: This alternative therapy involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body to help manage pain and promote healing. Some people find it helpful for cervical disk herniation pain.

●    Lifestyle changes: Maintaining good posture, practicing gentle neck stretches, and avoiding activities that strain the neck can aid in managing symptoms and preventing further issues.

Remember, the most suitable treatment depends on the severity of your condition, your overall health, and your preferences. Consulting a healthcare professional is crucial for getting an accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment recommendations.

When should I see my doctor?

If you develop severe neck pain following an injury, you should seek urgent medical attention. If your symptoms have any of the following associated features, you should seek urgent medical attention:

  • Numbness or weakness that extends down both arms or both legs
  • Numbness around your genitals or bottom
  • Loss of control of your bowels or bladder
  • Fevers or feeling generally unwell

If you do not have any of the above features, you should see your doctor if your symptoms have failed to improve after six weeks or if they are associated with swelling, pain worse at night or recent unintentional weight loss.

What will your doctor do?

The doctor will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. In the absence of any concerning features, you may be given advice regarding exercises to help relieve your symptoms in addition to simple pain medications. You may be referred to a physiotherapist in the first instance, depending upon the local services available.

On occasion, depending upon your symptoms and your examination, you may be sent for further investigations which can include blood tests, X-Ray or MRI scans. If you have any concerning symptoms or features on examination, your doctor may send you to the hospital for further investigation and treatment.

Nine out of ten people with a disk herniation will get better without requiring treatment. If your symptoms do not improve you may be referred to a spinal surgeon. Further treatments available for disk herniation include injections to relieve your pain or surgery to remove the prolapsed disk.

Do I need surgery for a cervical herniated disk?

Surgery is generally considered when conservative treatments haven't provided sufficient relief or when neurological symptoms are severe and worsening. Let's break it down:

When surgery may be required

●    Persistent and severe symptoms: If your pain, numbness, weakness, or other symptoms are persistent and seriously impacting your quality of life despite trying conservative treatments, surgery might be considered.

●    Progressive neurological deficits: If you're experiencing progressive neurological deficits such as muscle weakness, loss of coordination, or changes in bladder or bowel function, surgery might be necessary to prevent further damage.

●    Unbearable pain: If your pain is intense and unmanageable, hindering your ability to perform everyday activities, surgery could be an option to relieve your suffering.

●    Failed conservative treatment: When several months of conservative treatments like rest, physical therapy, and medications have not led to significant improvement, surgery might be recommended.

When surgery might not be required

●    Mild symptoms: If your symptoms are relatively mild and manageable with conservative treatments, surgery might not be immediately necessary. Many people find relief through non-surgical methods.

●    Improvement with conservative measures: If you're noticing gradual improvement with conservative treatments, surgery might not be needed. It's common for symptoms to get better over time with proper care.

●    No neurological deficits: If you're not experiencing any neurological deficits such as weakness or loss of function, your doctor might suggest continuing with non-surgical approaches.

●    Patient preference: Ultimately, the decision to undergo surgery is a personal one. If your symptoms are not severe, and you prefer to exhaust non-surgical options first, your healthcare provider can work with you to develop a suitable treatment plan.

Remember, the decision to undergo surgery should be made in consultation with a qualified healthcare professional. They can thoroughly assess your condition, discuss the pros and cons of surgical intervention, and help you make an informed choice that aligns with your health goals and preferences.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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