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Cervical disk herniation

Written by Healthwords's team of doctors and pharmacists based in UK | Updated: 24.02.2023 | 3 min read

Disk herniation describes the sudden onset of pain as a result of a problem with an intervertebral disk in the spine. Disk herniation is characterized by the sudden onset of pain that can be severe. Cervical disk herniation describes a disk prolapse in one of the intervertebral disks in the neck. Cervical disk herniation can cause pain felt in the neck with numbness, tingling, or weakness in the arms. Cervical disk herniation can also cause severe symptoms of weakness of the legs and even affect the ability to walk correctly.

What is actually causing the pain?

The spine consists of bones (vertebrae) that are stacked upon one another. Each vertebra is connected to the other by an intervertebral disk. The intervertebral disks help increase the flexibility of the spine and function as shock absorbers. Each individual intervertebral disk consists of a tough outer fibrous layer surrounding a gelatinous inner layer. A disk herniation, or slipped disk, can describe a tear of the outer fibrous layer of the intervertebral disk with or without protrusion of some of the inner jelly-like layer. In a cervical disk herniation, a tear of the outer fibrous layer can cause significant pain that is usually localized to the neck. Suppose there is also bulging of the inner gelatinous layer that irritates or compresses one of the nerves around the spine. In that case, this can result in significant pain, numbness, weakness, or tingling that extends into one or both arms.

Cervical disk herniation can occur following a specific injury. More commonly, however, disk herniation occurs as a result of age-related wear and tear. As we age, our intervertebral disks become stiffer and are more at risk of rupturing.

How long am I going to be in this pain?

In most instances, the pain from a disk herniation gets better and does not require any treatment. Nine out of ten people with a disk herniation will improve within six weeks.

Occasionally, if a disk herniation is very large or in certain locations, it can cause compression of the spinal cord or certain important nerves. In these rare instances, more urgent investigation and treatment may be required.

When should I see my doctor?

You should seek urgent medical attention if you develop severe neck pain following an injury. If your symptoms have any of the following associated features, you should seek urgent medical attention;

  • Numbness or weakness that extends down both arms or both legs.
  • Numbness around your genitals or bottom
  • Loss of control of your bowels or bladder
  • Fevers or generally feeling unwell.

If you do not have any of the above features, you should see your doctor if your symptoms have failed to improve after six weeks or if they are associated with swelling, pain worse at night, or recent unintentional weight loss.

What will your doctor do?

The doctor will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. In the absence of any concerning features, you may be given advice regarding exercises to help relieve your symptoms in addition to simple pain medications. Depending upon the local services available, you may be referred to a physiotherapist. Depending on your symptoms and examination, you may be sent for further investigations, including blood tests, X-Ray, or MRI scans. If you have any concerning symptoms or features on examination, your doctor may send you to the hospital for further evaluation and treatment.

Nine out of ten people with a disk herniation will get better without requiring treatment. If your symptoms do not improve, you may be referred to a spinal surgeon. Further treatments available for disk herniation include injections to relieve your pain or surgery to address the prolapsed disk.

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