Cervical Disc Herniation

Cervical disc herniation is a common cause of neck, shoulder and arm pain.  Terms to describe disc problems include bulging, ruptured, slipped, or extruded.  Sometimes a disc herniation occurs spontaneously or incidental to injury, repetitive movements, or degenerative disc disease.

The cervical intervertebral discs serve as your neck’s shock absorbers.  Each disc is composed of a sturdy tire-like annulus fibrosis that encases a gel-like interior called the nucleus pulposus.  Endplates anchor each disc in place between two vertebral bodies.

Growing older, trauma, injury, smoking, poor diet, and wear and tear can alter disc strength, resiliency and structural integrity.

What happens

The annulus fibrosis—the protective band of tissue protecting the nucleus pulposus—cracks, tears, or breaks open.  This allows some of the gel-like nuclear material to ooze outside the disc.  A bulging disc—the nucleus pulposus remains contained within the disc—may be a precursor to herniation.  Escaping disc matter may cause:

  • Nerve root compression
  • Spinal cord compression
  • Both


Pain is the foremost symptom of a cervical herniated disc.  The disc material, and potential loss of disc height, compresses the spinal nerves and/or cord.  Furthermore, within the escaping disc matter is a chemical irritant that causes nerve inflammation and pain.  Neck pain may spread into your shoulders, upper back, arms, hands and fingers.  This is called radicular pain or radiculopathy.

  • Pain, mild to intense
  • Movement increases pain
  • Sensations: burning, tingling, numbness, pins and needles
  • Hand clumsiness
  • Gait and balance disturbances
  • Rare, bowel and bladder dysfunction

Accurate diagnosis

Consult an expert, especially if neck pain develops suddenly, quickly worsens, or you have a pre-existing neck or back disorder.  An accurate diagnosis is essential to an effective and successful treatment plan.

Your medical history and physical and neurological examinations are very important.  You and your doctor discuss your symptoms, when they developed, and treatments tried.  The doctor tests your reflexes and evaluates you for muscle weakness, loss of feeling, and signs of neurological injury.

Diagnostic tests help the doctor confirm which cervical disc (or discs) is damaged.  A simple spinal x-ray can show collapsed disc space.  CT and MRI are sensitive imaging tools that detail bone, disc and nerve structures.

Treatment options

Non-surgical treatment often helps to relieve pain and symptoms.  Your doctor may combine two or more therapies to maximize the success of your treatment.

Non-surgical treatments

When your surgeon may discuss surgical treatment

  • Spinal instability
  • Neurologic dysfunction
  • Pain and symptoms are unrelenting
  • Non-operative treatment fails and pain persists

Surgical treatment

You may be a candidate for a minimally invasive spine surgery or disc replacement.  Sometimes spinal stabilization and fusion are necessary to stop the spine from moving or help alleviate progression of symptoms.  Anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) is an example of a type of minimally invasive procedure performed to treat cervical disc herniation and stabilize the neck.

Keep in mind that spine surgery is not always necessary.  However, if your surgeon discusses surgical options with you, be assured his recommendation is made with the greatest concern to your healthcare.