It is common to hear the terms herniated and bulging disc used interchangeably. While these two conditions are similar, they are not completely alike. A bulging disc occurs when one of the discs that separates each vertebra in the spines gets damaged and actually bulges, hence the name. This, in turn, puts pressure on the surrounding vertebrae. A herniated disc occurs as a result of a bulge that breaks through the cartilage that protects each disc. Other common terms for this condition are slipped disc, ruptured disc, or prolapsed disc.
Overview Of The Cervical Spine
The term cervical refers to the neck. Cervical discs are composed of a spongy cartilage material and act as a natural shock absorber for the spine. These discs provide essential cushioning between the rigidness of vertebral bones and allow the neck to twist, flex and extend. Excessive pressure on a disc pushes it beyond its normal space in the spinal canal, causing it to impinge on the nearby nerve roots.
A herniated disc can happen anywhere, at any time and to anyone. Disc herniation in the neck may involve any of the discs between the C1 to C7 vertebrae. These are known as the cervical vertebrae.
Disc herniation in the neck can be quite painful, irritating nearby nerves and causing neck pain or even arm pain. It is usually diagnosed with a simple exam. An MRI or CT scan is only done when absolutely necessary. With the proper care from a pain management doctor, this does not typically require surgery.
Cervical disc herniation is typically caused by wear and tear on the vertebral, or spinal, discs. Commonly, this is the result of age, chronic overuse, or an injury. Over time, spinal discs can dry out and deteriorate. As discs wear out, they provide less shock absorption for the spine. Flexibility and range of motion decrease as cartilage weakens, increasing the risk of herniated discs.
Depending on how the disc presses against the surrounding nerves, some people may experience mild to severe neck pain or arm pain that can radiate into the shoulders while others may experience no symptoms at all. Other common symptoms include headaches, numbness, tingling, neck stiffness, delayed reflexes, or feelings of muscular weakness.
For people reporting no pain or other symptoms, this is due to the fact that the disc does not always press on nearby nerves or soft tissue. For those who do experience pain, this pain is often continuous or occurring when the neck moves in certain directions or remains in specific positions.
A pain management doctor will design a treatment plan according to the severity of the herniation. Rest is often the number one recovery recommendation. Alternating between a heating pad and ice pack can help reduce swelling and inflammation.
There are several cervical exercises and stretches that can be done to increase flexibility and range of motion. A neck brace can sometimes help. If necessary, prescription or over-the-counter medicines may be taken to control the pain.
If symptoms don’t disappear with these treatments, a pain management doctor may order a corticosteroid injection or even disc surgery to reduce overall swelling and pain. Neck surgery that treats a cervical disc typically involves a hospital stay, anesthesia and an extensive recovery.