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Cervical Disc Disease and Neck Pain

What Every Adult Should Know About Pain From Cervical Discs
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WebMD Feature

Nothing lasts forever, especially the human body. Decades of bending, lifting, turning, and twisting can really take their toll on your neck. Considering all that repetitive stress, it's no surprise that about two-thirds of people will experience neck pain at some point in their lives.

Cervical disc disease goes beyond just a pain in the neck, though. A degenerative process can cause radiating pain, as well as numbness and weakness in your shoulders, arm, and hand. That discomfort and loss of mobility can have a major impact on your career, family, and quality of life.

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Cervical Discs: Your Natural Shock Absorbers

The cervical spine in your neck is made up of seven bones called vertebrae, which are separated by discs filled with a cushioning gel-like substance. Your cervical discs both stabilize your neck and allow it to turn smoothly from side to side and bend forward to back. "Without discs, the spine would be very stiff," explains Kee Kim, MD, associate professor of Neurological Surgery and chief of Spinal Neurosurgery at the University of California at Davis. "Discs allow our body to move in the way that we want. They also provide cushion for the body, acting as a shock absorber."

Over time, these natural shock absorbers become worn and can start to degenerate. The space between the vertebrae narrows and nerve roots become pinched. This process is known as cervical degenerative disc disease. Research finds that about 25% of people without symptoms under age 40, and 60% over age 40 have some degree of degenerative disc disease. As degenerative disc disease progresses, the neck becomes less flexible, and you may feel neck pain and stiffness, especially towards the end of the day.

When the disc breaks open or bulges out, putting pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots, it is known as a herniated disc or "slipped disc." Although cervical disc disease is generally a slow process, a herniated disc sometimes can occur quickly after an injury or trauma to the neck.

The most common and obvious symptoms of cervical degenerative disc disease are neck pain and a stiff neck. When one of these conditions presses on one or more of the many nerves running through the spinal cord, you also can develop pain, numbness, or weakness radiating down your shoulder, arm, and hand.

Diagnosing Your Cervical Disc Disease

To diagnose your cervical disc disease, your doctor will first take a medical history to find out when your symptoms started, how severe they are, and what causes them to improve or worsen. You'll likely have a neurological exam to test your strength, reflexes, and the sensation in your arm and hand, if they are affected.

Imaging tests such as X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computed tomography (CT) scans can help your doctor visualize your spinal cord to pinpoint the source of your neck pain.

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