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What Is Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease?

May 17, 2018  |  Staff

Cervical degenerative disc disease is a common cause of neck pain along with radiating pain in the arm. The cervical spine in your neck is made up of seven bones called vertebrae, which are separated by discs filled with a cushioning gel-like substance and act as shock absorbers between the vertebrae, allowing the spine and neck to bend and twist. As we age, the discs in the spine and neck may become worn and can start to degenerate. As the cushion between the vertebrae narrows and nerve roots become pinched, you are likely experiencing cervical degenerative disc disease.

Risk Factors for Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease

While most people will eventually experience some degree of cervical degenerative disc disease with age, there are certain risk factors that can make it more likely to develop sooner and/or become symptomatic. In addition to age and injury, arthritis and osteoporosis contribute to degenerative disc disease. Some other risk factors include:

  • Genetics: While genetics plays a small part in the age and severity of the condition, it is typically linked to lifestyle, meaning that genetic factors can be offset with a healthier lifestyle.
  • Weight: Being overweight, even by as few as 10 pounds, can burden your intervertebral discs as they work to help support your spine.
  • Smoking: Nicotine use may be directly responsible for intervertebral disc degeneration by causing cell damage by hindering nutrients from reaching the discs and causing them to lose hydration more quickly.

Symptoms of Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease

The symptoms of degenerative disc disease can vary widely from person to person but most commonly occurs in the cervical spine (neck) or the lumbar spine (lower back), as these are the areas that withstand the most motion and are most susceptible to wear and tear.

Typically, people with degenerative disc disease suffer chronic back or neck pain, and many complain of a stiff or inflexible neck. Others have severe neck pain, numbness or tingling in the neck, shoulders and arms as the nerves in the neck become pinched.

Often times the pain will flare up, causing what is commonly referred to as an acute episode. The main symptom is pain, so you should pay attention to it and what makes it better or worse.

With degenerative disc disease, you may notice pain patterns such as:

  • More pain when sitting for a long time, bending, lifting, or twisting
  • Less pain when walking or running
  • Less pain if you change positions frequently
  • Less pain when you lie down

If you experience mild neck pain for longer than a week or notice a sudden onset of severe neck pain, you should consult with your doctor right away. Your physician will review your medical history and perform a physical exam to measure neck extension and flexibility. He/she may order imaging tests such as X-Ray, MRI or a CT scan if they feel further investigation is required. Treatment options will then be discussed.

Non-Surgical Treatment Options

Lifestyle Modification: Certain activities might be more painful for the neck and you might be required to refrain from or modify certain activities for certain period of time. Eating healthy, staying hydrated and quitting smoking are also all beneficial for future disc health.

Pain Management: Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as Tylenol or ibuprofen are sometimes beneficial. If these are not effective enough, ask your doctor to prescribe a stronger pain medication, such as oral steroids or muscle relaxants. Other options could include an injection, such as a cervical epidural steroid injection or a cervical facet injection that delivers medication directly to a certain part of the neck.

Ice and/or Heat Therapy: Some people find pain relief by applying ice or heat to the affected area.

Exercise and/or Physical Therapy: Most non-surgical treatment options for neck pain include some form of exercise and stretching to increase strength and flexibility in the neck. This will often lower the risk for pain in the future. A physical therapist can prescribe an exercise and stretching program to meet your specific needs.

Surgical Treatment Options

Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion (ACDF): This procedure involves removing a damaged disc to relieve spinal cord or nerve root pressure and alleviate corresponding pain, weakness, numbness, and tingling. A discectomy is a form of surgical decompression, so the procedure may also be called an anterior cervical decompression.

Cervical Artificial Disc Replacement: This procedure involves removing the problematic disc and replacing it with an artificial disc to help preserve motion. Artificial disc replacement results may be better in patients with minimal arthritic changes to the posterior facets.


Many patients with cervical degenerative disc disease are able to find the relief they need from non-surgical options. However, if the degeneration is more severe and symptoms do not improve after trying everything else, surgery may be recommended. To learn more about treatment options or to schedule an appointment with one of our neck and spine specialists, call us at 800.698.1280.

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