Excruciating pain. That’s how the majority of those suffering from cervical herniated discs recall the experience. The vertebra of the neck is separated by discs to avoid grinding and abrasion. When the inner core of these discs herniate, or leak, out of the disc itself and start pressing on a nerve root, trouble and pain quickly ensue. Many would think that injury or trauma are the sole cause of cervical herniated discs, and they would be correct, to an extent. Yes, neck injuries and trauma are legitimate causes, but a lot of times cervical discs would just spontaneously herniate. That’s right, it can happen out of nowhere.
Cervical Herniated Disc Symptoms
Shooting arm pain is a result of the cervical nerve being pinched by the inner core that has herniated out of the disc. Numbness and some tingling also comes along with the radiating pain that runs from the neck down to the shoulder and all the way to the tips of the fingers. This pinching of the nerve is due to the fact that there just isn’t a lot of space in the neck and even the smallest herniation can impinge a nerve.
The cervical region of the spine consists of 7 vertebra and depending on where the impingement takes place the symptoms may differ slightly. In general, there will be pain, shooting pain through the arm and numbness. But the exact position and muscles effected will be determined by where the nerve gets pinched in the neck. For example, an impingement in the area of the C4 and C5 vertebra, where C4 is the fourth vertebra from the base of the skull, leads to the weakening of the deltoid muscle, shoulder pain but surprisingly, little numbness or tingling. In contrast, a pinch in the area of the C6 and C7 area, one of the most common type of impingements, results in the weakness of the triceps and the muscles that allow your fingers to point. Shooting pain coupled with numbness will also radiate from the triceps to the tip of the middle finger. The pain pattern of radiating, shooting pain, down the arm is known as cervical radiculopathy.
Cervical Herniated Disc Diagnosis
There are a handful of methods to determine whether someone is suffering from a cervical herniated disc. MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and CT (computerized tomography) are very popular and effective ways to diagnose cervical hernias. The bonus is that these techniques are not invasive requiring the patient to merely lie down on a scanning table. However, a CT scan combined with myelogram requires the patient to be injected with a dye in the spinal canal. The injection of the dye highlights the impingement, but because it requires sticking a needle into the spinal canal, it is not usually the first choice suggested by the patient or the doctor.
Another test known as an EMG (electromyography) may be called for which when described sounds like something out of science fiction. Needles are inserted into muscles of the arms and legs, and by stimulating specific nerves the doctor or technician is able to determine whether those muscles are innervated or not. The great thing about an EMG, even though it can be considered very invasive, is that it can rule out any false positives such as carpal tunnel, syndrome, ulnar nerve entrapment and other such conditions.
Cervical Herniated Disc Treatment
While cervical herniated discs do cause a significant amount of pain, the good news is that it is very much treatable. In general, there are three categories of treatment; medication, non-surgical and surgical. Often times the situation calls for a combination of two or all three of these forms of treatment to get the patient back in shape.
The majority of the time medication is used to dampen the pain caused by the nerve impingement and the inflammation caused by the herniation of the disc. NSAIDs, a form of anti-inflammatory medication, is often given to manage the pain and inflammation, however when the pain is so severe that plain old Ibuprofen is deemed ineffective, doctors may prescribe oral steroids to help the patient deal with the pain.
Also known as conservative treatments, non-surgical treatments aids in pain relief through physical therapy and exercises, such as the Mckenzie exercise to reduce pain in the limbs. Cervical traction, chiropractic manipulation and osteopathic medicine may also be used to both alleviate pain and return mobility to the neck and limbs. Of course there are more common sense solutions such as decreasing the amount of stress causing activity whether it be stresses to the cervical region or to the arms. Finally, using a brace to prevent slumping or leaning of the neck further reduces the stress on the muscles of the neck, but more importantly it may decrease the impingement on the nerve.
Surgery is often the most expensive and, psychologically speaking, scariest form of treatment. However, the majority of the time it is the most effective and longest lasting type of treatment. There are three types of surgeries that is currently offered to treat cervical herniated discs. The first of which is known as anterior cervical discectomy and spine fusion, and is thankfully abbreviated to ACDF. As the name suggests, the process involves removal of the herniated disc and then fusing the two (or more) vertebra in the afflicted area. The second procedure, posterior cervical discectomy, in considered a very technical procedure, as it requires the access of the herniated disc from the back, and due to the amount of veins in that region of the spine, it may lead to much bleeding. Finally, there is artificial disc replacement. The name of the procedure gives away the method of the treatment in that the herniated disc is removed and is replaced with a synthetic disc with the intent of mimicking the form and function of the original.
Cervical herniated discs can be excruciatingly painful and can cause a person much discomfort. Fortunately, with perseverance, there are ways for it to be diagnosed and treated.