More Than A Pain In The Neck
Persistent neck pain impacts millions of Americans. Although many people believe the pain will resolve with time, chronic, intense neck pain should never be ignored. Sometimes, the pain is a symptom of a herniated disc. More than 2% of Americans over age 30 suffer from herniated discs. The condition is common in the cervical or neck and lumbar or lower back regions. Cervical herniated discs are particularly painful and often require a specialist’s help. Before the specialist intervenes, however, there are some conservative ways to deal with the intense pain in the neck.
Causes and symptoms
The spine consists of several bones called vertebrae that run from the neck to the pelvic area. Between these bones are fibrous discs with a soft center. Intervertebral discs provide stability and shock absorption for the spine. However, the discs are prone to wear and tear or injury, especially with age. The wear and tear can cause the discs to shift out of place or lose volume, pressing on nearby nerves. The result is often nerve pain, instability, and pain that radiates to the limbs. Cervical herniated discs cause headaches, neck pain, and shoulder and arm numbness. Chronic pain and severe weakness in the neck and arm can also occur if left untreated.
Are conservative treatments possible?
Any person experiencing herniated disc symptoms should see a doctor immediately. The doctor will assess the spine and perform an x-ray to view the herniated disc. From there, doctors will often encourage a conservative approach to treatment. Rest and limited activity are the first steps, allowing the body to heal enough to relieve pain. Physical therapy (PT) is another critical step. A series of exercises will help stabilize the spine, strengthen muscles, and relieve pain. Other options for initial treatment include pain medication, cold and heat therapy, an anti-inflammatory diet, proper posture, and maintaining a healthy weight. Many people experience a significant decrease in pain from conservative treatment.
Conservative treatment options will allow some degree of healing and recovery. However, herniated discs will not return to normal size and position, and most will worsen with age, especially if the patient is inconsistent with treatment. If the pain of the herniated disc no longer responds to conservative treatment, a specialist, such as a neurologist, orthopedic surgeon, or spine specialist, must get involved. The specialist can perform more imaging tests and recommend the best course of action for the patient.
Some patients will respond to additional doctor-led therapies such as corticosteroid injections and nerve blocks. These limit the function of the nerves around the herniated disc, providing long-term relief. Should these medical treatments fail to reduce pain, surgery is another effective option. With anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF), the disc is removed from the front of the spine, and a bone graft or cage is installed. The nearby vertebra fuse, reducing pain and strengthening the neck. The ACDF surgery is popular as the procedure is minimally invasive and has a high success rate.
Herniated discs can lead to months or even years of pain and discomfort. With a combination of different conservative treatments, most patients will see relief and have an improved quality of life. However, there is a chance disc will not heal and the condition will worsen, requiring further treatment, such as surgery. Once the symptoms of a herniated disc appear, take quick and early action to improve the chances of long-term success.