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Cervical Disc Disease and Neck Pain

What Every Adult Should Know About Pain From Cervical Discs
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What to Do About Cervical Disc Disease

Even if you have degenerative disc disease or a slipped disc, chances are good that you'll be able to treat it without surgery. The first line in treatment for cervical disc disease is over-the-counter pain medications, including acetaminophen (Tylenol), and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and naproxen (Aleve). These medications can help reduce pain and inflammation. Your doctor might prescribe steroids or narcotic painkillers if over-the-counter medications aren't working.

Physical therapy is another treatment option for cervical disc disease. The therapist can use cervical traction, or gently manipulate your muscles and joints to reduce your pain and stiffness. The physical therapist can also help you increase your range of motion and show you exercises and correct postures to help improve your neck pain.

Your neck pain should improve with these conservative treatments. If you also have significant numbness or weakness, contact your doctor right away. You and your doctor will need to consider the next step in your treatment. Surgery is a treatment option, and deciding whether you need it is often a subjective process.

"Some people can tolerate more pain and numbness than others," says K. Daniel Riew, MD, Mildred B. Simon Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, professor of neurologic surgery, and director of the Orthopaedic Spine Institute at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "I try to make patients who just have pain wait at least six weeks [before having surgery], because in six weeks the vast majority of patients get better."

The main surgery for degenerative disc disease is called a discectomy. During this procedure, the surgeon removes the deteriorating disc. Discectomy is often followed up by artificial disc replacement, in which a metal disc is inserted in place of the disc that was removed. Discectomy may also be followed by cervical fusion, in which a small piece of bone is implanted in the space between the vertebrae. As the bone heals, it fuses with the vertebrae above and below it.

After You Heal: Keeping Your Neck Healthy

It can take anywhere from a few weeks for your neck pain to improve on its own, to three months to a year for the bone to heal after surgery. Once your neck pain has eased, it's up to you to keep your spine in good shape so you can avoid discomfort in the future. "Whenever we see anyone with a spine problem, we think about spine health in the long run," says Anthony Delitto, PhD, PT, FAPTA, professor and chairman of the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Pittsburgh. "Once symptoms improve, we want to help the person prevent the next occurrence."

Even though degenerative disc disease is most often due to age, it can also be influenced by lifestyle factors. To make sure you keep your spine as healthy as possible, eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly. Don't smoke, because, aside from its other affects on your health, smoking is a risk factor for cervical disc disease. Also watch your posture, always keeping your neck straight and your back well supported.

Although neck pain from cervical disc disease can return, you'll lower the chances if you take good care of your neck and the rest of your body. "Most people don't have constant neck problems throughout their lives. Usually it comes and goes," says Riew. "If you have a problem with your neck now, the odds are it won't last forever."

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Reviewed on October 03, 2007

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