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What Is Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease?

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

This lesson will explain what cervical degenerative disc disease is and what part of the body it affects. We'll go into the main causes, symptoms, and treatments of the condition.

What Is Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease?

Have you ever woken up with a stiff neck? As you try to get up and start your day, you might stretch a bit and even crack your neck. Most of the time, especially in young people, it's simply a result of not stretching properly or sleeping in a strange position.

But for older people, these symptoms are more common and are likely caused by cervical degenerative disc disease. In cervical degenerative disc disease, damage to the cervical spine (neck) causes compression in the spinal column, which results in pain, numbness, and tingling in the upper body. Although this break down occurs in most people as they age, it occurs faster in people with cervical degenerative disc disease. To understand the parts of the spine affected, we first need to review spinal anatomy.

Spinal Anatomy

The spine is our backbone and is composed of vertebrae, joints, and intervertebral discs, which cushion the vertebrae. The cervical spine consists of the first seven vertebrae of our backbone. Each vertebrae is cushioned by a disc. The discs center, or nucleus pulposus, is squishy and composed of a gel-like substance. The outside of the disc, called the annulus, is hard and holds the nucleus in place. In degenerative spine disease, any one of these parts can break down.

The cervical part of the spine, highlighted in pink
spinal anatomy

Causes

In degenerative disc disease, either the nucleus pulposus or the annulus breaks down. This can occur due to a specific injury, repetitive stress on the neck, or normal wear and tear over time. Degenerative disc disease is more common in the low back, but can also occur in the cervical spine.

With this condition, the soft nucleus wears out. Imagine the soles of your sneakers. At first, they are squishy, protecting your feet from the ground. However, over time, the soles compress with your body weight and use. Eventually, the soles are so worn out they might even form holes. The same thing can happen to the nucleus in one of your spinal discs.

Anatomy of a spinal disc
disc anatomy

A different problem can occur when the annulus cracks. In this condition, the nucleus pulposus seeps out and aggravates the nerves in the spinal cord. This can lead to decreased communication between the brain and the body, causing symptoms in the lower extremities. A cracked annulus is referred to as a herniated disc and like a nucleus that wears out, it is more common in the lower spine. However, injury or especially hard wear and tear can cause this to happen in the neck as well.

Herniated disc
herniated disc

Symptoms

The symptoms of cervical degenerative disc disease usually start with neck pain or stiffness. Since the cervical spine supports your neck, as it degrades, there is less support and less mobility in this area. The spinal cord connects your brain to your body and the nerves branching from your cervical spinal cord connect with the upper body. Thus, if the cervical spinal cord is damaged, there can be numbness, tingling, or weakness in the neck, shoulders, arms, and hands.

Treatment

Treatment for cervical degenerative disc disease is usually conservative, meaning surgery is a last resort. There are three main treatments: drug therapy, exercise and, lastly, surgery.

Drug Treatment

Most patients recover from using anti-inflammatory drugs to decrease the irritation in the spine or vertebrae. These could be over-the-counter drugs, like ibuprofen, or a stronger oral prescription, such as naproxen. Sometimes, an anti-inflammatory medication, like steroids, can be given as an injection at the site in the spine. However, steroids can cause degradation of the joints over time, so this treatment should be limited over a patient's lifetime.

Steroid injection into the lower spine
steroid injection

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