Question: Can Disc Hardening Cause Severe Neck Pain?

I have a cervical herniated disc at C5-C6. I was recently in a car accident and now the herniated disc is causing severe pain. When I had my second MRI, the doctor concluded that my disk was “hardening” and that there may not be “enough space” for the disk.

What does it mean for a disc to harden and not have space? Could that be the cause of the severe neck pain? How do I avoid aggravating the symptoms caused by the cervical herniated disc?

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Doctor’s Response: Maintain the Spine's Range of Motion

A cervical disc herniation may or may not be the cause of your pain, and an MRI scan often does not show what is causing the pain. An MRI scan is not a test for pain, but rather a test for anatomy (e.g. for a herniated disc). A disc bulge, herniated disc or similar pathology may be detected on an MRI scan, but it does not cause pain or any other symptoms in 30 to 50% of patients.

After a car accident, it is more likely that your neck pain is caused by soft tissue damage to the muscles or ligaments in the neck, and this type of injury cannot be seen in an MRI scan.

Often the best way to treat auto-accident pain is to maintain the range of motion in the spine and to strengthen the back and neck muscles. In general, active rehabilitation programs with physical therapy, plus time (it can take up to two years to heal) are the best treatments.

A rehabilitation doctor, such as a physiatrist who specializes in treating spine disorders, would be a good specialist to help you through the rehabilitation process. Surgery is rarely necessary for a disc problem (such as a cervical herniated disc) after an auto accident.

Lastly, I do not know what was meant by the disc “hardening”. You would have to ask the physician who told you this to clarify.

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In Spine-health’s Doctor Advice section, physicians respond to frequently asked questions about back pain issues. These responses represent the opinion of one physician, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the broader medical community. The advice presented has not been peer reviewed by Spine-health’s medical advisory board.