When you have pain in your neck or upper back that you’ve never felt before, you might have a herniated cervical disk.
While it might sound worrisome, it is not an uncommon health problem as you age. In fact, you could often have one without any symptoms.
Learn more about your cervical disks, what can cause one to become damaged, the symptoms, and when to call your doctor.
Your Spine and Cervical Disks
It helps if you first learn a little about your spine, how it’s constructed, and where your cervical disks are found.
Your spinal column is made up of bones called vertebrae. They hold you upright. They also surround and protect your spinal cord, which looks like a tube with fluid running through the middle. It stretches from your brain to the bottom of your spine.
In between the vertebrae are spongy cushions called cervical disks. Your cervical disks both stabilize your neck and allow it to turn smoothly from side to side and bend forward to back. They act like shock absorbers for your regular movements, as well as jumping, running, and other activities that put wear and tear on your body.
Your spine has three main segments, top to bottom:
The top seven vertebrae in your spine are the cervical vertebrae. The cervical area of your spinal cord also contains nerves that connect to your arms, hands, and upper body.
Cervical disks cushion the cervical vertebrae. They also connect the vertebrae to each other so you can bend and twist your neck and back.
Your Neck and Cervical Disks
Your cervical disks both stabilize your neck and allow it to turn smoothly from side to side and bend forward to back.
Over time, these disks 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 disk disease. Research finds that about 25% of people without symptoms under age 40, and 60% over age 40 have some degree of degenerative disk disease. As degenerative disk disease worsens, the neck becomes less flexible, and you may feel neck pain and stiffness, especially toward the end of the day.
The most common and obvious symptoms of cervical degenerative disk 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 have pain, numbness, or weakness along your shoulder, arm, and hand.
What Does ‘Herniated’ Mean?
The disks between vertebrae contain a gel-like substance in their centers. The outer part of each disk is made up of fibrous cartilage that keeps the gel contained.
When the outer part gets tears or splits, the gel can poke out. This is what it means for a disk to become herniated.
A herniated disk is also called a “ruptured disk” or a “slipped disk.” You can think of it like a jelly doughnut whose filling has squirted out.
Herniated Cervical Disk Causes
It can be hard to figure out exactly what causes a herniated cervical disk. It often comes on slowly with no clear cause. But sometimes the reason can be narrowed down to:
- Age. A disk can be more prone to herniating because of wear and tear. When we’re young, our disks have a lot of water in them. But over time as we get older, the amount of water decreases. Less water in the disks means they can become less flexible. And that means when you move, twist, or turn, the chance of it rupturing, or herniating, is greater. In older people, they can rupture with less force.
- Genetics. Herniated disks also can run in families.
- Movement. Sudden, jarring motions can cause one.
- Sudden strain. If you lift a heavy object or turn or twist your upper body too quickly, you can damage a disk.
Herniated Cervical Disk Symptoms
A herniated cervical disk is one of the most common causes of neck pain. If the disk is pressing on a nerve root, other symptoms can include:
- Numbness or tingling in a shoulder or arm that may go down to your fingers
- Weakness in a hand or arm
If it presses on your spinal cord, you can have more serious symptoms, including:
- Stumbling or awkward walking
- Tingling or a shock-like feeling running down your body into your legs
- Problems using your hands and arms for fine motor skills
- Loss of balance and coordination
When to Call a Doctor
Herniated disks are common and occur more often in men than women. People 35 to 55 years old have a higher chance of getting a herniated disk.
If you have neck pain with one or more of the above symptoms, and especially if you have any weakness, you should see your doctor.
Keeping Your Neck Healthy
Your neck pain may get better on its own or with conservative treatment after a few weeks. If you have surgery to treat it, it may take 3 months to a year for the bone to heal. 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. Watch your posture: Always keep your neck straight and your back well-supported.
Although neck pain from cervical disk disease can come back, you'll lower the chances of this if you take good care of your neck and the rest of your body.