Spine Surgery for a Cervical Herniated Disc

Bone graft
Fig. 2: Bone graft
(larger view)

Titanium plate and screw device
Fig 3:
Titanium plate and screw device
(larger view)

Most episodes of arm pain due to a cervical herniated disc will resolve over a period of weeks to a couple of months. However, if the pain lasts longer than 6 to 12 weeks, or if the pain and disability is severe, spine surgery may be a reasonable option.

Spine surgery for a cervical herniated disc is generally very reliable and can be done with a minimal amount of postoperative pain and morbidity (unwanted aftereffects).

With an experienced spine surgeon, the back surgery should carry a low risk of failure or complications. The success rate for back surgery for a cervical herniated disc is about 95 to 98% in terms of providing relief of arm pain.

The spine surgery for a cervical herniated disc can be done a number of different ways:

  • Anterior cervical discectomy and spine fusion. This is by far the most commonly preferred method among spine surgeons for most cervical herniated discs. In this surgery, the disc is removed through a small one-inch incision in the front of the neck.

After removing the disc, the disc space itself is fused (see Figure 2).
A plate can be added in front of the graft for added stability and possibly a better fusion rate (see Figure 3).

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  • Anterior discectomy without spine fusion. This is basically the same procedure as above except after removing the disc the space is left open and no bone is added to get a fusion. The disc space will still often fuse even without a bone graft but the healing seems to be longer and when and if it does heal, it tends to heal in a deformed position.
  • Posterior cervical discectomy. This is similar to a posterior (from the back) lumbar discectomy, and for discs that occur laterally out in the neural foramen (the “tunnel” that the nerve travels through to exit the spinal canal) it is often a reasonable approach. However, it is technically more difficult than an anterior approach because there are a lot of veins in this area that can result in a lot of bleeding, and the bleeding limits visualization during the surgery. This approach also necessitates more manipulation to the spinal cord.

Potential Risks and Complications of Spine Surgery for a Cervical Herniated Disc

Although any major surgery has possible risks and complications, with an experienced spine surgeon serious complications from cervical disc surgery should be rare.

Possible complications from spine surgery for a herniated disc include:

  • Damage to either the trachea/esophagus or one of the major blood vessels in the anterior spine (front of the neck). This should happen in less than 1 in 1,000 cases.
  • In about 1% of cases, retraction on the nerve to the voice box (recurrent laryngeal nerve) can cause hoarseness. The hoarseness usually resolves in two to three months.
  • Fusion rates run about 95%. Occasionally, there may be a postoperative nonunion that requires a re-fusion. Without a cervical plate there is a possibility (less than 1%) that the anterior bone graft will displace.
  • With either the anterior or posterior approach there is a 1 in 10,000 chance that there would be either nerve root or spinal cord damage.
  • Infection or cerebrospinal fluid leak happens less than 1% of the time.

Postoperative Care Following Spine Surgery for a Cervical Herniated Disc

For anterior surgery, there usually is not a great deal of postoperative pain. The surgery is done through a small incision in the front of the neck, and the spine can be accessed in between tissue planes that do not require cutting. This type of surgery usually can be done either outpatient (going home the same day as surgery) or with one overnight stay in the hospital.

The pain in the arm usually goes away fairly quickly, although it may take weeks to months for the arm weakness and numbness to subside. It is not uncommon to have some neck pain for a while.

Postoperatively, most spine surgeons prescribe a neck brace, although the type of brace and length of usage is variable. Also, most spine surgeons will ask their patients to limit their activities postoperatively, although the amount of restrictions and the length of time tend to vary. Ask your spine surgeon before the surgery what his or her usual protocol is regarding postoperative care.