There are six cervical discs and 23 total discs in the entire spinal column. Each cervical disc rests between the cervical vertebrae, acts as a shock absorber in the cervical spine and allows the neck to handle much stress.
Composed of collagen and ligaments, the cervical discs also hold the cervical vertebrae together and allow for flexibility and different movements of the neck.
Cervical Disc Construction
Each cervical disc is made up of a tough exterior (annulus fibrosus) and a soft, jelly interior (nucleus pulposus), with the circular, outer core comprised of collagen fibers that surround the inner core and distribute pressure and force on the structure.
The nucleus pulposus is a loose, fibrous network suspended in mucoprotein gel that is sealed by the annulus fibrosus and needs to be well-hydrated in order to maintain its strength and softness, and serve as the major carrier of the body's axial load.
With age, the cervical discs lose water, stiffen and become less flexible in adjusting to compression. Such degenerative changes may result in the inner core of the cervical disc extruding through the outer core and coming in contact with the spinal nerve root (what is known as a herniated cervical disc).
In other instances, the cervical disc may degenerate as a result of direct trauma or gradual changes. With no blood supply and very few nerve endings, the cervical discs cannot repair themselves.
Cervical Symptoms from Degenerative Disc Disease
Cervical degenerative disc disease refers to when a cervical disc is the actual source of pain in the neck, possibly from twisting or falling on the neck but more likely from day-to-day wear and tear on the cervical spine.
Cervical symptoms related to a degenerative cervical disc may include a stiff neck and/or numbness, tingling, and weakness in the neck, arms, and shoulders as a result of a cervical nerve that has been irritated or pinched by the degeneration. Such cervical symptoms may persist for several months and fluctuate in terms of intensity.
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Patients with a degenerative cervical disc will typically begin with non-surgical treatments (NSAIDs, exercise, chiropractic, physical therapy, etc.) to seek cervical pain relief; however, if such treatment proves ineffective, a cervical spine surgery that removes the disc or fuses the spine may be necessary.
While not as common as degenerative disc disease in the lumbar spine (lower back), cervical disc disease nevertheless is a relatively common source of neck pain.