From a minor inconvenience to a completely debilitating injury, a cervical herniated disc is likely to require one of several available treatments to restore functionality and allow you to resume most – if not all – of your regular activities. If you’ve been recommended for herniated disc treatment, it’s helpful to know what your options are. Prior to undergoing treatment, be sure to weigh all of the pros and cons to ensure you’re choosing the right course of action to address your unique needs and desired outcome.
What is a Cervical Herniated Disc?
The cervical region of your spine is made up of a series of the seven vertebrae that lie between the base of your skull to roughly the level of the top of your shoulders. Each of these vertebrae (and the ones below, too) have a disc of springy tissue between each one. These discs help absorb impact, keeping your spine flexible and protecting the spinal cord.
When one of these discs is compromised, such as by rupturing, it is considered a herniated disc. The damage can be gradual or can happen all at once. A cervical herniated disc can occur with regular stress over a prolonged time, or a more acute instance, such as injury or trauma. The most common locations for these ruptures are in the cervical and lumbar (lower back) areas of the spine.
Herniated discs can present with a small variety of symptoms, including pain, weakness in the torso and upper extremities or numbness in these areas. If a herniation is particularly large, symptoms can be experienced in lower parts of the body such as the legs, as well.
Treating the Cervical Herniated Disc
If you suspect you may be suffering from a cervical herniated disc it is important that you seek out help and diagnosis. While in some cases the injury will heal on its own with rest and a modified routine, others will require treatment, including both surgical and non-surgical methods. These include:
- Rest followed by physical therapy is often recommended for smaller, less impacting herniations. If the herniation is minor, rest is essential for reducing inflammation and allowing the body to start healing. Physical therapy can promote the strengthening of the neck and back muscles and go a long way toward preventing another herniation.
- Medications, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and short-term narcotics can help with pain and swelling. This may be paired with other treatments. Follow your doctor’s recommendations on the use of any medication.
- Corticosteroid therapy may be used to decrease swelling and help alleviate neck and arm pain. This can include the use of epidural injections (administered by a specially trained physician), or more general corticosteroid injections or oral meds. Be sure to discuss all of the risks and benefits of this route of treatment with your doctor.
- Surgery is always an option that should be considered, especially in cases with severe disc damage or degeneration. There are two types that are particularly effective for cervical disc herniations: posterior cervical microdiscectomy and anterior cervical discectomy.
The Right Surgery for You
Both of the above surgeries have their advantages. In the case of posterior cervical microdiscectomy, it allows for a quick recovery time with a minimally invasive technique used. Because the muscles are not cut, but rather moved apart for this surgery, there is a much shorter recovery time and less pain and blood loss associated. Most people are back at home within 24 hours of their surgery.
If an anterior cervical discectomy with or without fusion is determined to be the best surgical option, the damaged disc(s) will actually be removed. In some cases they might be replaced with artificial discs, or a fusion will be performed between two vertebrae. Although this surgery is a little more invasive, it is still considered a minimally invasive procedure with a fairly short recovery time.
Recovering from Cervical Herniated Disc Surgery
While each person recovers from surgery at their own rate, generally, both of the above surgeries tend to have shorter recovery times than more invasive surgeries. In the case of both, muscle and other structures are not compromised, meaning healing times are much shorter.
For posterior cervical microdiscectomies, patients go home the same day and the expected recovery time is anywhere from 2-4 weeks. For anterior cervical discectomy, you can expect recovery to take a little longer and, most patients spend anywhere 24 hours in the hospital for monitoring and early recovery.
Once you’re home, you’ll be limited on the amount you can do; certain activities such as twisting, lifting or running may be discouraged. Your surgeon will give you a set of guidelines that will point you in the right direction for ensuring you don’t injure the area. If you have had a fusion surgery, you will need to quit smoking prior to the surgery; smoking has a direct effect on the ability of the fusion to heal properly.
Regular checkups, typically starting at three weeks, will be recommended. During these appointments, your doctor will likely take radiographs to make sure everything is healing properly. Activity recommendations and other lifestyle modifications will be revisited at each appointment.
Choosing the Right Surgeon
As with anything concerning your health and well-being, choosing the best possible surgeon and the most appropriate treatments will help ensure a positive outcome. When you’re seeking a surgeon, make sure they have a great deal of experience performing the particular surgery you’re undergoing. Don’t be afraid to ask how many they’ve performed, what their success rate is, and if there were any unusual complications with any of them. A good surgeon will not hesitate to provide you with this information.
Navigating through the complexities of surgery can be daunting. However, with the right information and a supportive medical team, you’ll be on your way to regaining the life you had before your herniated disc.