When a cervical disc herniates, its soft inner material and inflammatory proteins start to leak into the protective outer layer and possibly into the spinal column. A herniated disc commonly causes a sharp or shock-like pain in the neck and/or arm by inflaming or compressing a nearby nerve root. Other nearby structures, such as the spinal cord, may also become inflamed and painful.
Watch: Cervical Spine Anatomy Video
Common Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Herniated Disc
Some common signs and symptoms of a cervical herniated disc include:
- Neck pain. This pain is typically felt toward the back or side of the neck. It can range from a mild pain that feels tender when touched to a sharp or burning pain.
- Radicular pain. This pain can radiate from a pinched nerve in the neck down through the shoulder, arm, hand, and/or fingers. It can sometimes feel hot or electric shock-like.
- Cervical radiculopathy. A pinched nerve or nerve root inflammation may also cause numbness and/or weakness to radiate down into the shoulder, arm, hand, and/or fingers. Radicular pain may also accompany radiculopathy in some instances.
- Symptoms worsen with specific head positions or activities. A herniated disc’s pain tends to flare-up and feel worse during activities, such while playing a sport or lifting a heavy weight. Certain head positions—such as twisting to one side or tilting the head forward—may also worsen the pain.
- Neck stiffness. Pain and inflammation from a cervical herniated disc may restrict certain neck movements and reduce range of motion.
The specific pain patterns and neurological deficits are largely determined by the location of the herniated disc.
Cervical Herniated Disc Signs and Symptoms by Nerve Root
The cervical spine contains 7 vertebrae stacked atop each other, labeled C1 down to C7. The intervertebral discs are located between adjacent vertebral bodies. For example, the C5-C6 disc sits between the C5 and C6 vertebrae. If the C5-C6 disc herniates, it can compress a C6 nerve root. The signs and symptoms caused by a cervical herniated disc can vary depending on which nerve root is compressed. For example:
- C4-C5 (C5 nerve root): Pain, tingling, and/or numbness may radiate into the shoulder. Weakness may also be felt in the shoulder (deltoid muscle) and other muscles.
- C5-C6 (C6 nerve root): Pain, tingling, and/or numbness may be felt in the thumb side of the hand. Weakness may also be experienced in the biceps (muscles in the front of the upper arms) and wrist extensor muscles in the forearms. The C5-C6 disc is one of the most common to herniate.1
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- C6-C7 (C7 nerve root): Pain, tingling, and/or numbness may radiate into the hand and middle finger. Weakness may also be felt in the triceps (muscles in the back of the upper arm), finger extensors, and other muscles. The C6-C7 disc is commonly considered the most likely to herniate in the cervical spine.1
- C7-T1 (C8 nerve root): Pain, tingling, and/or numbness may be felt in the outer forearm and pinky side of the hand. Weakness may also be experienced in finger flexors (handgrip) and other muscles.
These are typical pain patterns associated with a cervical disc herniation, but they are not absolute. Some people are simply wired differently than others, and therefore their arm pain and other symptoms will be different.
Less Common Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Herniated Disc
If the spinal cord becomes compressed or inflamed by a cervical herniated disc, signs and symptoms may include:
- Pain, tingling, numbness, and/or weakness in both arms and/or both legs
- Problems with coordination or walking
- Difficulty with bladder and/or bowel control
Any of these signs or symptoms require immediate medical attention.