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.
Why is back pain or a knee injury annoying to one person and sheer agony to another? Turns out, an individual's tolerance to pain is as unique as the person, and is shaped by some surprising biological factors, as well as some psychological factors that we can actually try to control.
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.