As a natural part of aging, our vertebral discs dry out and lose their flexibility, resilience and shock absorbing capacity. This dehydration and shrinkage of the center of the disc can quickly lead to degeneration of the cervical discs causing pain and stiffness.

Symptoms of Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease

The main symptom of CDDD is persistent neck pain. This pain is usually the result of stiffness from the loss of disc height, which can cause nerve impingement and joint inflammation. The pain is more prominent when there is head movement or the patient is upright. On the contrary, the pain may ease when lying down or reclining.

When the disc degenerates it usually indicates the development of bone spurs, which cause nerve compression. The entrapped cervical nerve roots can further reduce movement and start off burning, tingling, numbness, and pain in the back of the head and neck as well as the arms and hands.

Diagnosing Your Neck Pain

Your physician will likely first conduct a physical examination measuring the range of motion and flexibility of the neck. If the physical exam warrants further investigation, test like an MRI or CT scan may be conducted.

A CT scan may identify the impingement on the nerves and a MRI helps evaluate the soft tissues of your spine. Lastly, epidural or nerve blocks around neural structures may be necessary to find the source causing the nerve symptoms.

Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment Options

Non-operative Care

Patients with degenerative disc disease and pain have various treatment options. These treatment options range from physical therapy to surgery.

For acute neck pain, there are different pain management options including:

  • Non Steroids Anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs)
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Epidurals medications (such as acetaminophen, anti-inflammatory and muscle relaxants)

Your orthopedic specialist may also recommend:

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy may include stretching exercises to improve flexibility and extension for relaxing and strengthening the spine’s natural curve.  Once the acute pain symptoms subside, generally in 2-3 weeks, patients are encouraged to start exercising daily, which should include daily neck stretches and low impact aerobics.

Cervical Collar

A soft cervical collar for support around the neck region may be necessary for several weeks, depending on your diagnosis.

Interventional Pain Management

In some cases, an interventional pain management program may be necessary to help reduce your pain. This may include injections of special medications, such as steroid or local anesthetic, or nerve blocks onto or near the nerves in your neck.

Surgical Treatment

If non-surgical treatment fails and pain ensues your physician may recommend surgery. The most common technique for treatment of CDDD is referred to as an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF).

This procedure involves a frontal approach to remove the affected disc and then fusion of the adjacent vertebrae.

Spinal fusion is recommended by surgeons when the patient cannot bear any weight due to painful degenerative discs, causing pain. This can often accelerate the degeneration of adjacent discs at levels above or below the fusion adversely. A newer surgical technique can now be utilized to maintain motion in the degenerative level, known as cervical disc replacement, which also decreases the risk of wearing out the disc.

Cervical Disc Degenerative Disease may be a natural part of aging but you do not have to live with neck pain. With proper diagnosis and treatment, you can make a return to an active and normal lifestyle.

The Illinois Bone & Joint Institute has more than 90 orthopedic physicians, and 20 locations throughout Chicago. We’re here to help you move better so you can live better.