We all know what it feels like to wake up with an aching neck that leaves us hunched over for a time. In many cases, these sensations go away as we gently move about our day or work the kinks out in a hot shower. If you have a herniated cervical disc with radiculopathy, though, this is not the case. The pain and lack of mobility linger, far beyond the hot shower or a brief massage. Here’s what you need to know about herniated cervical disc with radiculopathy. We hope to answer your questions completely, but if you have others, give us a call at North Texas Neurosurgical Consultants. We’re always here to help.
What is a herniated cervical disc with radiculopathy?
The neck is a surprisingly delicate part of the spinal column, given the hard work it does every day. Not only does it hold up the varying weight of our heads (depending on where we carry it), but it also swivels and moves with agility.
These seven cervical vertebrae are assisted in this movement by intervertebral discs. These discs have a flexible but hard outer cover filled with a gel-like fluid (almost like a filled jelly doughnut). These discs provide cushioning between vertebrae to protect the bones from each other and the nerves of the spine from the bones.
When these discs become damaged, though, they can begin to leak the gel-like fluid, gradually (or instantly, in the case of accident or trauma) decreasing the space between the vertebrae. Once this space is gone, the area of the spinal column narrows, and the vertebrae can begin to rub on the nerves inside. This herniated disc can result in cervical radiculopathy, a radiating pain that is caused by the pressure on the nerve.
Do I have cervical radiculopathy?
If your neck pain is not caused by an accident or other trauma, early symptoms may just seem like you slept wrong or you maybe strained a muscle in your neck. You may experience soreness and tightness and possibly lose some mobility due to pain.
As the disc completes the process of herniation, though, symptoms will become more extreme. They can include the following:
- Pain that travels (radiates) down the arm into the hand
- A tingling feeling of “pins and needles” in the fingers or hand
- Weakness in the muscles of the arm, shoulder, or hand
- Loss of sensation
- Sharp pain upon movement
- Pain that decreases when hands are placed on top of the head
These symptoms may come and go until the herniation of the disc is complete, at which point they may become so severe as to limit daily activity.
What causes herniated cervical disc with radiculopathy?
In many cases, degenerative disc disease increases the chances of herniated cervical disc with radiculopathy, but often this occurs due to normal wear and tear on the cervical vertebrae. This is so common that nearly half of all patients in middle age have at least the beginnings of herniated disc in their neck without symptoms.
It is possible to increase your chances of developing cervical radiculopathy. Risk factors include:
- Occupations with repetitive motions
- Poor neck-forward posture (especially the posture we use to check our phones or while focusing at work)
- Gender, as men have herniated cervical discs about twice as often as women
Our approach to cervical herniated disc treatment
It’s important to try a conservative, nonsurgical approach to cervical radiculopathy treatment first.
Physical therapy can help to separate the vertebrae and create the muscle support to make space in the spine. In some cases, injections can help facilitate this too, temporarily relieving pain while a patient begins physical therapy. A soft surgical collar, combined with the passage of time, can also help relieve pressure and restore the health of the discs.
If you are among the 10% of patients for whom more conservative treatments do not work, you do have surgical options. They include the following.
Spinal fusion is a surgical technique utilized when other conservative treatment approaches have failed.
For cervical radiculopathy, your surgeon removes the herniated disc and uses a bone graft to replace it. Special hardware holds the vertebrae in place while they heal, giving the bones time to come together.
Spinal cord decompression surgery creates space between the vertebrae.
Opening up this space (and potentially performing spinal fusion for stability) relieves painful pressure on the nerve and can provide relief.
Anterior cervical discectomy and fusion is a procedure that removes what remains of the damaged disc and fuses at least two of the cervical vertebrae together to provide more stability and decrease (or eliminate) pain.
To access the cervical vertebrae, your doctor will make a small incision in the throat. This is a safer way to perform cervical fusion because operating in the back of the neck can damage neck muscles or the spinal column itself. Moving the neck tissue aside, your surgeon then removes the damaged disc. A spinal fusion is also usually performed to increase stability in the neck and prevent re-injury.
Cervical herniated disc recovery time
Recovery time from these surgeries vary from patient to patient. Yours will depend on your age, overall physical health, and compliance with aftercare instructions.
Patients are typically sent home from surgery with a brace for support and a short-term prescription for pain medication. There may also be a prescription for physical therapy and exercise. In general, you can expect to return gradually to normal activities after two weeks, gently easing into more strenuous work or exercise only when approved to do so by your doctor.
For procedures with bone grafting, expect full recovery time to take somewhere between two and four months. Give yourself the best chance at this shorter recovery time by diligently following all of your doctor’s recovery instructions. This also means taking good care of yourself with proper diet and abstaining from smoking or excessive alcohol use.
Get help with your cervical radiculopathy pain
If severe pain in your neck is impacting your life, come see us at North Texas Neurosurgical Consultants. We can help. Dr. Rosenstein and the rest of the team are based in Dallas/Fort Worth area but we welcome patients from all over Texas.
If you are ready to work with one of the top neurosurgeons in Texas, get in touch.