A herniated disc in the neck is not as common as in the lower back, but it does happen. Interestingly, the causes of disc herniation in the lumbar region mirror those of the same condition in the cervical (neck) region. That is, the intervertebral discs in both regions are subjected to a great deal of wear and tear over the years. This wear and tear is exacerbated by the rigors of spinal movement and the challenge of bearing weight (of the head, in the case of the neck, and of the upper body, in the case of the lumbar spine). Another quality they share is that unless there is consistent compression of a nearby spinal nerve, a herniated disc could very well remain undetected.
Nerve Compression in the Neck
When a disc within the cervical region ruptures, the inner gel-like substance in the nucleus seeps through a tear in the outer wall and into the spinal canal. The tear in the outer wall might produce mild discomfort and inflammation, but the true pain typically isn’t experienced unless the extruded inner disc material makes contact with a cervical nerve root. If a herniated disc in the neck causes nerve compression, whether the contact is intermittent or constant, it can produce the following symptoms in the neck, upper back, arms, hands, and fingers:
- Neck pain
- Upper back pain
- Traveling pain along the length of the compressed nerve
- Muscle weakness
In some cases, a herniated disc in the upper spine can cause chronic headaches, as well. These symptoms usually are manageable using a combination of conservative treatments, including pain medication, exercise, and hot/cold compresses. Surgery becomes an option only after conservative methods prove ineffective after several weeks or months.
An interesting facet of a herniated disc in the neck is that it often can go undetected, because debilitating symptoms do not usually arise without nerve compression. However, if symptoms do arise, a doctor will may use medical imaging such as an X-ray, MRI, or CT scan to discover the precise location and severity of the disc herniation. The initial examination might also include palpation of the area, tests for range of motion, and a question-and-answer session that helps the physician understand the patient’s medical background, as well as the nature of the current malady.