A Visual Guide to How Cervical Discs Degenerate

The cervical spine, or neck, has a disc of soft tissue in between each pair of bony vertebrae. These discs are central to each motion segment in the cervical spine and allow a great deal of motion in your neck.

See Cervical Spine Anatomy and Neck Pain

Cervical Degenerative Disc DiseaseWatch this animated 2-minute video to see how a cervical disc degenerates.
Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease Video

But spinal discs are vulnerable to degeneration, which can lead to pain and stiffness. When this occurs, it's referred to as degenerative disc disease.

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How cervical discs begin to degenerate

Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease

The vertebrae and discs of your cervical spine work together to support your head and neck, allow movement, and shelter the beginning of the spinal cord.

See Vertebrae in the Vertebral Column

The interior of each of your spinal discs—the nucleus pulposus—is soft and gel-like. It is contained by the annulus fibrosus—a fibrous band that makes up the outer layers of the disc.

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Because of wear and tear over time, spinal discs can dehydrate. This dehydration (desiccation) can cause the inner part of the disc to lose its flexibility and height.

See All About Spinal Disc Problems

Effects of disc dessication

As the inner part of the disc loses moisture and collapses, it can cause the outer disc bands to weaken, bulge, or develop small tears.

See How a Disc Becomes Painful

Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease

Cervical disc disease pain can result as inflammation proteins released from the damaged disc irritate nerve fibers.

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If your cervical disc collapses severely enough, it may irritate or put pressure on nearby spinal nerve roots. This pressure can cause pain that radiates along the nerve path and down the arm. This pain is known as a cervical radiculopathy.

See Radiculopathy, Radiculitis and Radicular Pain

Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease

Over time, your disc may collapse into a less volatile position, which may cause your pain to subside.

Nonsurgical treatment for cervical degenerative disc disease may include ice or heat therapy, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS), physical therapy, or chiropractic adjustments.

See Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease Treatment Options

If nonsurgical treatments fail to relieve pain, your physician may recommend artificial disc replacement surgery to alleviate your pain.

Learn more:

Pain from Degenerative Disc Disease

Considerations for a Cervical Disc Replacement Surgery

Post written by Carrie DeVries