As well as resulting from trauma to the neck, cervical herniated discs can occur spontaneously, without any specific injury.
Discs are small, circular cushions between the vertebrae, which are the bones of the spine. Normally, discs act as shock absorbers to cushion your vertebrae from each other as you move. A herniated disc is a disc that has bulged out from its proper place. Disc damage causes the soft rubbery center of the disc to squeeze out through a weak point in the hard outer layer. A herniated cervical disc is present when this transpires on one of the vertebrae in the cervical (neck) area of the spine.
A disc may be damaged by:
- a fall or accident
- repeated straining of the neck
- a sudden strenuous action, such as lifting a large amount of weight or twisting violently
Symptoms may begin suddenly or gradually. You may feel a sudden aching in the arm or your arm may tingle or feel weak. A herniated cervical disc may not cause neck pain, however.
Your doctor or other healthcare professional will review your symptoms and the history of your pain. He or she will also examine your spine and test the movement and reflexes in your arms and legs. Finally, one of the following methods of diagnosis may be used:
- spinal X-rays
- CT scan (computerized X-ray images of your spine)
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging of the spine and herniated disc)
- electromyography (tests of muscular electrical activity)
- myelography (injection of dye into the fluid surrounding the spinal cord, to make the area more visible on X-rays)
- discography (injection of dye into a disc to be X-rayed).
Treatment for a cervical herniated disc may include:
- drugs, including anti-inflammatory medications, steroids or prescription pain relievers
- traction, the process of putting bones or muscles under tension with a system of weights and pulleys to relieve pressure on them or to keep them from moving
In most cases, treatment will not require surgery. However, surgery may be necessary if symptoms continue.
Within a few weeks, the initial intense pain should disappear. Some pain may remain for a few months, however. You may be prone to neck aches throughout your life, and therefore must remember to protect your spine when lifting or during other types of physical activity.
Returning to Normal
The goal of rehabilitation is to return you to your sport or daily activity as soon as is safely possible. However, if you return too soon you may worsen your injury and sustain permanent damage. When you will be able to return to your regular routine will be determined by how soon your herniated disc heals, not just by the length of time that has passed since the injury. Generally, the longer you have symptoms before starting treatment, the longer the healing period will be, although everyone recovers at a different rate.
It is quite important that your herniated disc fully recover before you return to any strenuous activity. Subsequent visits to your doctor are necessary to determine if your injury has completely healed. Before considering yourself fully recovered, you must be able to perform all of your rehabilitation exercises without pain and have full range of motion of your back and neck with no shooting pain in your legs or arms You must also be able to run, jump and twist without any pain.
Herniated discs can often be prevented by keeping your weight down, maintaining a proper diet and exercising to keep your muscles, including those in the abdomen, firm. Strong, flexible muscles can stabilize your spine and protect it from injury. Walking and swimming are two good exercises to keep muscles strong, protect your spine and promote good general health.