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Degenerative Disc Disease (Cervical Spine)

Degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine is a condition caused by age-related wear and tear of one or more discs of the spine, and typically characterized by neck pain.

Degenerative Disc Disease (Cervical Spine) Hero Image 2

Degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine is a condition caused by age-related wear and tear of one or more discs of the spine, and typically characterized by neck pain. These spinal discs are found between each vertebra (the bones that make up the spine). They help hold the vertebrae together and provide protection during movements that can place stress on the spine, like running and lifting.

Degeneration is a normal part of aging, and isn’t usually associated with pain. A diagnosis of degenerative disc disease means that the degeneration is causing pain and possibly other symptoms.

A diagnosis of degenerative disc disease may follow one or more different injuries to the spinal disc, including:

 

  • Bulge
  • Hernia
  • Crack
  • Thinning

What causes Degenerative Disc Disease (Cervical Spine)?

The neck undergoes a tremendous amount of stress and movement throughout an individual’s lifetime. As we get older, spinal discs can become dehydrated and therefore become stiffer and less able to take on stress from daily movement. When spinal discs aren’t able to take on the stress that they once could, they’re more likely to become damaged.

Degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine is common among individuals who play/have played these sports:

  • Boxing
  • Football
  • Gymnastics
  • Rugby
  • Ice Hockey
  • Diving

Symptoms

The most common symptom associated with degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine is continuous pain in the neck that may radiate into the arm. Other symptoms of degenerative disc disease in the cervical spine include:

  • Radiating pain in the shoulders and/or arms
  • Stiffness of the neck
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms and/or hands
  • Weakness in the arms

When to see a doctor

If you have symptoms of cervical degenerative disc disease, make an appointment to see an orthopedic specialist. Certain symptoms, like numbness or weakness in the arms, could indicate that there is some type of nerve injury. Your doctor will ask you to describe your symptoms and will do a physical examination to look for tenderness of the spine and assess range of motion in the neck.

To make a diagnosis, your doctor may prescribe the following imaging tests:

  • CT scan
  • X-rays
  • MRI

Non-operative treatment

Pain associated with degenerative disc disease can oftentimes be treated using conservative, non-operative treatment methods, including:

  • Avoiding high-impact activities, like jogging, that can aggravate the spine and choosing low-impact activities, like walking, instead
  • Avoiding activities that can place stress on the spine, like heavy lifting
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve pain
  • Steroid injections to reduce inflammation
  • Physical therapy to stretch and strengthen the muscles surrounding the neck
  • Chiropractic care

Surgical Treatment

If symptoms of cervical degenerative disc disease do not go away with conservative treatments, your doctor will recommend surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal disc. Cervical degenerative disc disease can be treated surgically with:

  • Artificial disc replacement: The damaged cervical spinal disc is replaced with an artificial disc designed to create space within the spinal canal.
  • Discectomy and fusion: The damaged cervical spinal disc is removed to make space in the spinal canal and take the pressure off of the nerves. A bone graft is placed where the spinal disc originally was. When this bone grows, it fuses the two vertebrae and provides structure to the spine.

Recovery

Cervical degenerative disc disease is a lifelong condition that must be managed long-term. There is no cure for disc degeneration. Some people successfully manage symptoms with conservative, non-operative treatments for years.

The time it takes to recover from surgery depends on the procedure you need. For each type of surgery, you will be asked to stay in the hospital for a few days before being released. You will be instructed by their doctors to start a physical therapy program to regain mobility and strength of the neck. Recovery from an artificial disc replacement may take between two to three months, while full recovery from a fusion procedure may take at least six months.

 

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