Cervical disc disease occurs due to degeneration of the intervertebral discs present between cervical vertebrae. While it can be a natural process of aging, persons with previous neck injuries, occupations demanding over use of neck or awkward neck movements may be at an increased risk.
Degeneration of Cervical Discs
Normally, these discs function as a cushion and support the other vertebrae, thus maintaining the spine flexibility and strength. The intervertebral discs can get damaged due to wear and tear, over a period of time and overuse. Sometimes, damage to discs can occur in young individuals because of injuries, infections or other disorders too.
When cervical discs get damaged or degenerated, they lose their strength and height. As a result the discs no longer remain flexible and begin to affect the normal movements. In cervical disc degenerative disease, the degenerated discs result in pain and other symptoms.
Symptoms of Cervical Disc Disease
The common symptoms experienced in cervical disc disease include
- Pain - Cervical disc disease usually presents with pain and difficulty in neck movements. Sometimes, there is no pain or the pain may not be actually in the neck, but in the arms, hands or fingers.
- Muscle Spasm Caused Due to Cervical Disc Disease – Muscles around the neck and shoulders usually become tensed. This causes the entire area around the neck to be painful and stiff.
- Reduced Neck Movements Caused Due to Cervical Disc Disease – Neck movements are often affected due to neck pain and muscle spasms. Pain and discomfort may be felt while moving the neck up and down or turning the head to the sides, thus reducing the neck movements. Changes in the range of motion can be disturbing and can even affect the daily activities.
- Nerve Compression and Pain – As the degeneration of cervical disc is a progressive condition, it can be associated with bony spurs/growths or osteophytes that may press on the nerves passing through that region. Also, the narrowing of the vertebral canal gives less space to spinal cord passing through it. This causes compression of the nerve roots and causes pain. Muscles getting into spasms too can exert pressure on the nerves.
- Nerve Symptoms – Apart from pain, nerve compression due to cervical disc disease can also lead to other symptoms like tingling, numbness and pins like sensation in the arms, hands and fingers. This is also called cervical radiculopathy, as the nerves supplying these parts get pinched or compressed causing pain and tingling sensation. Sometimes, a burning sensation, weakness or co-ordination difficulty may also be noted in the arms and hands. In more advanced cases, weakness or lack of bowel, bladder control may also be seen.
Sometimes, dizziness or vertigo may be felt. Physical exertion, jerky neck movements and travelling can worsen the neck pain. Pain and other symptoms are often relieved by lying down on the back and resting the neck and arms.
Diagnosis of Cervical Disc Disease
Usually, X-Rays are done to note the bony changes like changes in the height of discs, bony spurs and osteophytes. However, the degenerative changes can be noted on the X-rays, only in advanced cases. In initial stages, although there is neck pain and early degenerative changes in the cervical disc, no findings may be noted on the X-Ray.
MRI is more sensitive and can give more details including the soft tissue changes in cervical disc like muscle spasms, nerve involvement, etc. More advanced imaging studies including CT scan, discography may be ordered, if found appropriate.
Treatment of Cervical Disc Disease
Treatment of Cervical Disc Disease depends on the severity of the condition and often a conservative approach is taken first. Medicines like muscle relaxants, pain killers, nerve tonics, steroid may be prescribed. For more persistent pain steroid injections, epidural injections may be considered.
If conservative treatment for Cervical Disc Disease fails and the condition advances causing more trouble, surgical intervention may have to be considered. The type of surgery and technique depend on the severity of the Cervical Disc Disease, the location of disc degeneration and involvement of nerves.
Painful neck may be supported using neck collar or braces for a short period till pain subsides. Hot and cold compresses may be tried. Postural training and physical therapy can help to a great extent in relieving the pain and preventing recurrent episodes.
Lifestyle Management for Cervical Disc Disease
Regular exercises in the form of walking, cycling or swimming can help to keep the muscles in the cervical region flexible. Neck and back strengthening exercises should be learnt from an expert and practiced regularly to gain adequate strength and flexibility. Avoid staying in the same position or sitting for long to avoid problems related to cervical disc. Practice good postural habits while reading, writing and using technology devices.
Smoking should be avoided and alcohol consumption should be limited. Drink plenty of water as it improves the hydration. Consume a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Take almonds, nuts and fish like salmon, tuna for a dose of omega-3-fatty acids.