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A herniated disc, also known as a bulging disc, can be a literal pain in the neck. When a disc in the cervical spine bulges, it can be excruciatingly painful. You may also experience pain in your arms, shoulders, and back, in addition to your neck.
The good news is that a herniated disc can often be treated without surgery by combining over-the-counter medications and neck exercises to relieve pressure and pain.
Here's everything you need to know about a herniated disc in your neck, including why you might get one, symptoms to look for, treatment options, and how to avoid getting one in the first place.
A fibrous outer layer holds the disc's gel-like substance in place. A herniated disc occurs when the outer layer tears and the gel leaks out.
A disc herniation is an outpouching of disc material into the spinal canal or along the normal nerve pathways, causing pain.
A herniated disc in the neck has no known cause in the majority of cases. It could be as simple as poor lifting mechanics or as serious as neck trauma from a car accident.
People frequently wake up with neck and arm pain, prompting them to consult their primary care physician and begin treatment.
A herniated disc in the neck could be caused by a variety of factors. Age, weight, lack of regular exercise, poor nutrition, poor posture, incorrect lifting or twisting, tobacco use, and occupations or activities that require regular overhead lifting are all examples of risk factors.
Many of these factors are preventable through a healthy lifestyle, but others are the result of aging. The discs degenerate as we age, becoming less flexible and more prone to injury.
The obvious symptom of a herniated disc is neck pain, but it can be accompanied by other symptoms such as pain in the arm or fingers, numbness or tingling in the fingers, weakness in the grip, or loss of dexterity in the hand, and frequent dropping things.
Additional symptoms of a herniated disc in the neck may include weakness, difficulty balancing, and loss of bladder or bowel control in severe cases.
Asymptomatic herniated discs are a common and often unnoticed finding. In other words, many people walking around with a herniated disc may be asymptomatic.
Of course, it's difficult to tell if you have a herniated disc if you don't have any symptoms. If the pain persists or worsens, or if you have neck pain along with other symptoms, you should see a doctor for an exam and evaluation to see if you have a herniated disc.
To diagnose a herniated disc, your doctor will request a complete medical history as well as information on when, where, and how the neck pain began. You will also be subjected to a physical examination.
Imaging tests, such as X-rays, CT scans, or an MRI, will be performed if necessary. X-rays are typically used to rule out other causes of neck pain, whereas an MRI can show the soft tissues in the neck and assist in determining which disc is herniated.
In many cases, a herniated disc can be treated with a combination of over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen and naproxen, rest, and physical therapy.
If your pain is severe, your doctor may suggest an epidural steroid injection. If these treatments do not resolve the herniated disc, talk to a spine surgeon.
The key is to reduce modifiable risk factors through a healthy lifestyle, stress reduction, and smoking cessation. If you go to the gym or carry heavy equipment over your head, make sure to lift with proper mechanics and form.
Following an exercise routine and eating a healthy diet can be beneficial. Another way to avoid a herniated or bulging disc in the neck is to maintain good posture.