Symptoms of cervical degenerative disc disease can vary widely from person to person.

When cervical degenerative disc disease becomes symptomatic, the pain might develop slowly over time or appear suddenly. The symptoms can range from mildly annoying neck discomfort to debilitating pain, numbness, and/or weakness that radiates into the arm and hand.

Common Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms

Some common characteristics of cervical DDD symptoms include:

  • Neck pain. The low-grade pain of a stiff neck is the most common symptom of cervical degenerative disc disease. However, sometimes the pain could also flare up and become severe, perhaps lasting a few hours or days.

    See Stiff Neck Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

  • Nerve pain. This type of pain tends to be sharp or electric shock-like and can radiate down the shoulder into the arm, hand, and/or fingers. Typically, nerve pain would only be felt on one side of the body.

    See Could That Shoulder Pain Really Stem From the Neck?

  • Neurological symptoms in the arm, hand, and/or fingers. Pins-and-needles tingling, numbness, and/or weakness can radiate down the shoulder into the arm, hand, and/or fingers. These types of symptoms can interfere with daily activities, such as typing, getting dressed, or holding objects.

    See Understanding Hand Pain and Numbness

  • Pain gets worse with movement. In general, pain caused by the degenerative disc itself tends to be aggravated by movement and alleviated by rest.

If the pain comes from the degenerative disc itself, then it will likely go away on its own within a few weeks or months. However, other symptoms of cervical degenerative disc disease are more likely to become chronic and require treatment if facet joints in the neck also start to degenerate and/or a spinal nerve becomes pinched.

See Symptoms and Diagnosis of Facet Joint Disorders


Less Common Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease Symptoms

The more the cervical spine degenerates, the more likely the spinal canal will narrow and put the spinal cord at risk. If the spinal cord becomes compressed, then myelopathy could result and include symptoms such as:

  • Difficulty moving arms and/or legs
  • Trouble with coordination and/or balance
  • Loss of bowel and/or bladder control
  • Weakness and/or numbness anywhere beneath the neck
  • Shock-like pains through the arms or legs, which can be made worse by bending forward

Cervical myelopathy is cause for concern and requires prompt medical attention. It usually occurs in people over age 50.


Diagnosing Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease

The condition is typically diagnosed by the following process:

  1. Medical history. First, a doctor will review the patient’s medical history in addition to learning about the current symptoms.

  2. Physical examination. Next, a doctor will perform a physical examination by palpating (feeling) the neck and testing the neck’s range of motion. During the exam, patients may be asked to perform certain movements and report whether the neck pain increases or decreases.

    If the pain is severe or if neurological symptoms are present, such as pain, tingling, or weakness in the shoulder, arm, or hand, then the doctor will likely request an imaging study.

  3. Imaging confirmation. If the doctor determines that an imaging study is needed to check for a potential disc problem, then an MRI will likely be ordered. An MRI, X-ray, or possibly a CT scan can confirm whether and where degeneration is occurring, as well as identify other conditions (such as osteoarthritis or stenosis) that might be causing the symptoms.

Once an accurate diagnosis of cervical degenerative disc disease is confirmed, as well as any other associated conditions, then the source of the symptoms can be understood and an effective treatment program can be created.

Dr. John Shim is an orthopedic surgeon who has more than 25 years of experience. He is the President of ShimSpine, as well as a researcher and educator, serving as a Clinical Instructor at the University of South Florida Department of Orthopaedics and contributing chapters to medical textbooks on minimally invasive spine techniques.