There are 23 total discs in the entire spinal column, and 6 of them are in the cervical spine. Each cervical disc rests between the cervical vertebrae, acts as a shock absorber in the cervical spine, and enables the neck to handle various stresses and loads.
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 has two basic components:
- Outer layer. This tough exterior, called the annulus fibrosus, is comprised of collagen fibers that surround the inner core and distribute the forces placed on the structure.
- Inner core. This soft jelly interior, called the nucleus pulposus, is a loose, fibrous network suspended in mucoprotein gel that is sealed by the annulus fibrosus.
The discs need to be well-hydrated in order to maintain their strength and softness to serve as the body's major carrier of axial load.
With age, the cervical discs lose water, stiffen and become less flexible in adjusting to compression. Such degenerative changes may result in a herniated cervical disc, which is when the disc's inner core extrudes through its outer core and comes in contact with the spinal nerve root.
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, a cervical disc cannot repair itself.
Cervical Symptoms from Degenerative Disc Disease
Cervical degenerative disc disease may be diagnosed when a cervical disc is the source of pain in the neck, possibly from twisting or falling on the neck but more likely from years of 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, shoulders, and/or arms, 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 (pain medication, exercise, chiropractic, physical therapy, etc.) to seek cervical pain relief. However, if such treatment proves ineffective, a cervical spine surgery that removes all or part of the problematic disc may be necessary.