The C6-C7 spinal segment—located towards the bottom of the cervical spine—helps provide the neck with structural support, some flexibility, and does its part to protect the spinal cord.
It’s also the location where the C7 nerve root branches off from the spinal cord and travels down the arm to enable:
- Straightening the elbow, lifting the wrist, elongating fingers to a stretched out position
- Movement to the triceps muscle in the back of the upper arm
- Sensation from the neck down to the palmside of the forearm and into the palm and middle finger of the hand.
See Cervical Nerves
The C6-C7 level has an elevated risk for becoming a source of pain due to the fact that this level of the cervical spine is quite mobile.
Common Causes of C6-C7 Pain
If the C6-C7 spinal segment becomes a source of pain that persists or recurs, some of the more likely culprits include:
C6-C7 degenerative disc disease
The disc acts like a cushion between the bones (or vertebrae) in the neck. As the disc positioned between the C6 and C7 vertebrae starts to lose its cushioning and height during the normal aging process, the facet joints endure more stress resulting in degenerative problems. This can lead to pain generation arising from the disc itself, from the settling of the joints, and/or irritation of the adjacent nerve.
C6-C7 disc herniation
The condition occurs when the disc’s outer layer (annulus) gets a large enough tear to enable the inner gel layer (nucleus) of the disc to leak out and potentially irritate the nearby nerve. If the nerve is affected, neurological symptoms such as pain and weakness can radiate down the path of the nerve into the arm and/or hand (cervical radiculopathy).
A pair of facet joints connect the C6 and C7 vertebrae, enabling smooth movement when enough healthy cartilage is present. If the protective cartilage wears away, then a facet joint can become arthritic and painful. Bone spurs can grow on the arthritic joint and reduce the spacing for nerves to exit the spine freely and function properly.
C6-C7 spinal stenosis with myelopathy
Central spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal canal starts to narrow in diameter, usually through degeneration of both the disc and the facet joints. Over time, this can become dangerous for the spinal cord which is housed inside of the spinal canal.
Myelopathy occurs when neurological symptoms result from spinal cord compression, often due to the stenosis as described above. These symptoms can include coordination problems in the arms, hands, legs, feet, patchy numbness and/or pain in the arms and/or legs, and if enough cord compression occurs, bladder and bowel control can become compromised.
The majority of spine specialists’ recommend surgery for myelopathy (taking into account the patient's overall health status).
C6-C7 foraminal stenosis
Foramina or lateral recesses are the two bony holes (one on each side) through which the nerve roots exit as they branch off the spinal cord and leave the spinal canal.
At the C6-C7 level, the C7 nerve root can become compressed within the foramen, causing pain down the arm, similar to a disc herniation. This occurs when bone spurs develop off the nearby facet joint and/or the corners of the vertebral body resulting in narrowing of the foramen.
Less Common Causes of C6-C7 Pain
Other conditions that cause pain at the C6-C7 level include:
- Spondylolisthesis. As a result of wear and tear or injury, spondylolisthesis can happen at the C6-C7 level when the C6 vertebra slips forward or backwards over the C7 vertebra.
- Tumor. A tumor growing at the C6-C7 spinal segment can compress the C7 nerve, causing pain and other symptoms associated with radiculopathy. A tumor at C6-C7 would be a rare occurrence but could happen with cancer or other conditions.
- Infection. Various parts of the C6-C7 spinal segment could become infected, such as the C6 or C7 vertebra, and/or the C6 disc. Multiple parts could become infected at once. If the spinal cord itself becomes infected, this can be particularly dangerous.
- Fracture. A broken vertebra at the C6-C7 level can cause pain and other symptoms, especially if the adjacent nerve root is affected.
In This Article:
As stated above, a cervical nerve root can become compressed or irritated in various ways, such as by a bone spur, a herniated disc, or combination of the two. When this happens, the term “cervical radiculopathy” is applicable and refers to the symptoms associated with nerve compression and irritation. Most commonly symptoms will only affect one arm.
At the C6-C7 level, cervical radiculopathy affects the C7 nerve root, and symptoms can include pain, tingling, numbness, and/or weakness that radiates from the neck down the shoulder and arm, to the forearm and into the palm and middle finger of the hand.