Cervical Disc Disease

Although it's a normal part of the aging process, cervical disc disease can cause neck pain and other symptoms. Fortunately, there are a variety of treatment options that help provide relief and keep you active.

Cervical disc disease is part of the natural process of growing older. As we age, our intervertebral discs lose their flexibility, elasticity and shock absorbing characteristics. The ligaments that surround the disc, called the annulus fibrosis, become brittle and are more easily torn. At the same time, the soft gel-like center of the disc, called the nucleus pulposus, starts to dry out and shrink. As a result, people complain of neck pain and stiffness, especially towards the end of the day.

Degenerative disc disease

Symptoms

The common symptoms that suggest that cervical disc disease may be responsible for a person's pain include:

  • Neck pain
  • Pain that radiates down to the back of the shoulder blades or into the arms.
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Difficulties with hand dexterity or walking.

Muscle weakness occurs at a later stage in the degenerative process than neck pain does, and it is a sign that disease is relatively more serious.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of cervical disc disease begins with a complete physical examination of the neck, arms and lower extremities. Your doctor will examine your neck for flexibility, range of motion and the presence of certain signs that indicate your nerve roots or spinal cord are affected by degenerative changes in your neck. This often involves testing the strength of your muscles to make sure they are still working normally. You will often be asked to fill out a diagram that asks you where your symptoms of pain, numbness, tingling and weakness are occurring.

A series of x-rays also are typically ordered for a patient with chronic neck pain. If cervical disc disease is present, the x-rays will often show a narrowing of the disc spaces between the vertebral bodies, which indicates that the disc has become very thin or has collapsed. Your doctor also may order an MRI or a CT scan (CAT scan) to evaluate the degenerative changes in the cervical spine more completely. An MRI can determine where disc herniations have occurred and where the nerve roots are compressed. A CT scan is often used to evaluate the bony anatomy in the spine, which can show how much space is available for the nerve roots.

Treatment

Your doctor will discuss your diagnosis and treatment options with you. For most people who do not have evidence of nerve root compression with muscle weakness, the first line of therapy may include non-surgical treatment measures such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, exercise and physical therapy. Spine surgery is considered only after conservative care has failed to adequately relieve your symptoms after a certain period of time, typically 6 to 8 weeks.

Talk to your doctor about appropriate treatment options. To find a spine surgeon in your area, use our Physician Locator.

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