Herniated Cervical Discs
Have you ever bitten into a piece of king cake and had the cream cheese or raspberry filling squirt out? If so, it may be easier for you to understand the complexities of a herniated cervical disc, a spinal problem some people experience as they age.
A herniated cervical disc is a diagnosis that sounds a lot worse than it is. People who suffer with this often experience pain in the neck and upper back that can be accompanied by numbness and tingling in the arm and hands. Moreover, individuals may experience hand weakness or difficulty walking. However, some people with a herniated disc experience no symptoms at all. In many cases, the problems associated with this condition clear up on their own and normal activity can be restored within six weeks.
The spine and cervical disc
Your spinal column is made up of bones called vertebrae. The neck or cervical section of the spine supports the weight of your head, which weighs about 10 pounds. We humans have seven cervical vertebrae in our necks, the same number as giraffes, believe it or not.
The vertebrae are separated by discs, which are like shock absorbers or cushions that keep the vertebrae from crunching into one another. At the center of these discs is a gel-like substance called the nucleus pulposus. The outside of the disc is made up of a fibrous cartilage called the annulus fibrosis, or the disk wall. This cartilage keeps the gel contained, much like the dough of a king cake keeps the filling in its place.
When the fibrous, outer part of the disc splits or tears, the gel oozes out and you experience a herniated cervical disc. It is also referred to as a ruptured disc or slipped disc. The escaped gel material irritates your spinal nerves, which causes inflammation and pain. Over time, the herniation tends to shrink and the pain is reduced or eliminated.
Symptoms associated with herniated cervical discs can come on slowly with no clear cause. Possible reasons include:
- Age – As we age, the amount of water in our discs declines, leading to collapse of the disc height and subsequent compression of nerve roots. People 35 to 55 years old have a higher chance of experiencing a herniated cervical disc.
- Genetics – Herniated discs can run in families.
- Sudden, jarring motions – Car accidents can cause them.
- Sudden strain – You can damage a disc by lifting a heavy object or twisting your body too quickly.
Diagnosis and Treatment
The best way to diagnose a herniated cervical disc is to see your doctor. The physician may be able to determine that you have this problem with a simple physical exam that locates the source of pain and tests for muscle weakness, numbness, or changes in reflexes. In most cases, X-rays, an MRI or other imaging modalities may be recommended.
In many cases, the problems associated with a herniated disc should start to improve within a few weeks. Restricting activity, ice and heat therapy and taking over the counter medications such as ibuprofen or aspirin to reduce pain and inflammation can help get you back to normal. Your doctor may also prescribe muscle relaxants to ward off any muscle spasms that may occur.
Physical therapy including stretching exercises can also help with recovery. If rest, physical therapy and medications don’t help, a doctor can inject steroid medication into the area around the nerve.
Most people with herniated discs don’t need surgery. However, there are several surgical procedures that can be performed in cases when symptoms persist or worsen. Your doctor can advise you on those options.
Most herniated cervical discs get better on their own or with treatment. But they can recur if you don’t take proper care of your spine. For protection of the spine, you should always stand and sit up straight, squat from your knees and don’t bend from the waist if you have to lift something heavy and maintain a healthy weight to prevent extra pounds from putting a strain on your spine.
So, the next time you bite into a piece of king cake, remember the gel-like substance in your discs can spill out just like the filling. It might just keep you from indulging in a second piece.
Learn more about neurosurgeon Jonathan Riffle, DO.