What Is a Herniated Cervical Disk?

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 disks. 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:

  • Cervical
  • Thoracic
  • Lumbar

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.

What Does ‘Herniated’ Mean?

The disks between vertebrae contain a gel-like substance in the center of them. The outer part of a 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.

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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.

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.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on December 17, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Houston Methodist: “A guide to neck pain.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Diseases and Conditions -- Herniated Discs.”

American Association of Neurological Surgeons: “Patient Information -- Herniated Disc.”

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Herniated Disk.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Anatomy of the Spinal Cord.”

Know Your Back (North American Spine Society): “Herniated Cervical Disk.”

Mayo Clinic: “Herniated disk vs. bulging disk: What’s the difference?”

University of Maryland Medical Center: “Spine Center -- Anatomy and Function.”

Emory Healthcare: “Orthopaedics: Conditions and Treatments -- Cervical Herniated Disk.”

UCLA Spine Center: “Cervical Herniated Discs.”

UpToDate: “Clinical features and diagnosis of cervical radiculopathy.”

Radiology: “Asymptomatic degenerative disk disease and spondylosis of the cervical spine: MR imaging.”

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