Skip to main content

You may have heard it referenced by many different names, including cervical disc herniation, ruptured disc, slipped disc or bulging disc. Regardless of what it’s called, a herniated disc can become an incredibly painful and debilitating issue if left untreated.

Your neck (the cervical region of your spine) is made up of seven vertebrae. Vertebrae are the individual bones that stack together to create your spine. Between many of these bones is a disc of cartilaginous tissue that provides padding and aids in the flexibility and range of motion in a healthy spine.

When you experience a cervical disc herniation, one of those discs has become damaged in some way. This causes it to press against nerves or other structures, sometimes resulting in a wide array of symptoms from mild to almost unbearable.

Symptoms of a cervical disc herniation

A cervical disc herniation can manifest in many different ways. Sometimes the signs and symptoms are so subtle you don’t really know there’s a problem, while other times they can be completely debilitating.

The following list details a variety of the signs and symptoms frequently associated with a cervical disc herniation.

Pain in your neck or upper back

Perhaps the most obvious symptom is sharp pain in your neck or the area of your back between your shoulder blades. This could be an indication of a cervical disc herniation.

Numbness or tingling

If you’re experiencing numbness or tingling in one arm, shoulder or fingers, this can be another sign that you have a herniated disc. This is due to the compression of nerves from the damaged disc.


Radiculopathy, often referred to as a pinched nerve, occurs when pain radiates down your arm and may extend into your hand and fingers.

Causes of cervical disc herniation

You may be wondering how you developed a herniated disc, particularly if you haven’t been in an accident or don’t participate in extreme sports or high-impact activities. Cervical disc herniation can happen to anyone.

Isolating the cause of a cervical disc herniation can be difficult but with the help of an experienced neurosurgeon, you may be able to pinpoint factors that contributed to the development of this condition.

Spinal trauma

If you’ve had any sort of trauma to your neck or spine, you may be at a higher risk for developing a ruptured disc. If you participate in extreme sports that place a lot of pressure on your spine and neck, you may be developing cumulative trauma.

Although the outer layer is made of tough, fibrous tissue, it can only withstand so much impact before it can become torn or injured.

Natural aging

As you age, your discs will start to “dry out”, reducing the elasticity of the disc. This is part of the normal aging process. The discs in your neck are under considerable strain with normal head movement. Over time, this can wear them down and make them more prone to rupture.

Diet, exercise and lifestyle habits

Not surprisingly, diet and exercise can have a major impact on the health of your spine. If you are not eating a balanced diet that supports tissue repair and getting enough exercise, the discs in your spine can suffer. Additionally, habits such as smoking or recreational drug use can also contribute to poor disc health, making a cervical disc herniation more likely.

Poor lifting techniques

If you regularly lift heavy loads with improper technique, you run a much greater risk of having a disc rupture. The twisting and strain put on your spine, particularly under a heavy load, can cause one or more discs to fail due to the extreme amount of stress being placed on the neck and back.

Treatment options for cervical disc herniation

Once you get a diagnosis of a cervical disc herniation, your most important job is to explore all of the treatment options available to you. Depending on the location of the hernia and severity of symptoms, you may or may not be eligible for certain treatments.

There are two broad categories of treatments with different options under each. The first that should be considered is the nonsurgical treatment route. The second is surgical treatment. Both have their place in the management of cervical disc herniation.

Your doctors and neurosurgeon can help guide you through the decision process to ensure you end up with the best possible outcome.

Nonsurgical treatments for cervical disc herniation

  • Cold/Heat therapy. In cases of acute cervical disc herniation, such as from an accident, cold and heat therapy may prove to be invaluable in reducing pain and swelling. It is typically recommended that this be used in the first two days immediately following your neck injury.
  • Pain medications and anti-inflammatory drugs. After a full assessment, your doctor may determine that your first course of action should be a course of pain medication and possibility anti-inflammatories. Often times, if the pain can be controlled and the inflammation decreased, the symptoms of your disc herniation will dissipate.
  • Physical therapy. Physical therapists can help you build muscle strength to support your neck. They may also use techniques such as massage or traction to help relieve the pressure being placed on the nerves in your neck.
  • Pain Management.   Specially trained physicians who specialize in procedural techniques and pain medication administration.  They can perform procedures like epidural steroid injections and prescribe other pain medications that can help relieve your symptoms

Surgical treatments for cervical disc herniation

  • Anterior discectomy and fusion. This surgery is probably the most commonly used surgical treatment for cervical disc herniation. Using an opening in the front of the neck, the damaged disc is removed. Bone grafts, surgical plates and screws are then used to “fuse” or attach the two adjacent vertebrae to one another, making that portion of the spine immobile. This protects the space where the disc used to dwell and prevents the nerves and spinal cord in that region from becoming “pinched” or compressed within the space where the disc once existed.
  • Cervical disc arthroplasty. Cervical disc arthroplasty offers an alternative to those that would like to achieve full mobility in their necks again. It is not recommended for everyone but has become a common means of repairing a cervical disc herniation. It uses a prosthetic disc that functions just like the natural one. This surgery, as with the anterior discectomy, is performed through a small incision in the front of the neck. The old and damaged or diseased disc is completely removed. A special instrument is used to recreate the disc space. Using “live” x-rays, the artificial disc is guided into place.
  • Posterior cervical foraminotomy with discectomy.  This approach involves a small incision in the back of your neck.  The surgeon then uses microscopic equipment to open a small bony opening, exposing the nerve and allowing for access to the herniated disc which is then removed.  This technique only involves removal of the herniated portion of disc and does not require disc replacement or fusion. Only certain patients are candidates for this type of surgery as anatomical constraints limit this approach to select cases.

With a number of treatments and an experienced team of doctors and specialists, you can stop the pain and discomfort and regain your active lifestyle.