Cervical radiculopathy is an umbrella term describing what happens when the nerves in your cervical vertebrae (the bones in your neck) become irritated. A number of disc diseases or injuries can cause a herniated disc or bone spur to press against a nerve root and cause pain. Cervical radiculopathy affects about 85 people out of every 100,000, according to the American Physical Therapy Association, most of them in their 50s.
Symptoms of Cervical Radiculopathy
The symptoms for cervical radiculopathy—which is often described as a “pinched nerve”—vary greatly. They include shooting pains, numbness, pins-and-needle sensations, weakness or a persistent tingling.
Symptoms affect different parts of the body depending on which nerve root is irritated. For example, damage to the C-8 nerve root may cause a weak hand grip and tingling in the pinky finger. In short, cervical radiculopathy can quite literally get on your nerves.
Causes of Cervical Radiculopathy
To understand the causes of cervical radiculopathy, it’s necessary to learn a little bit about human anatomy. Your vertebrae support your neck and body. Between each vertebrae, there’s a small, squishy disc that provides cushioning and a smooth surface for the vertebrae to move across when you bend or twist your neck. Like a jelly donut, the discs are soft on the inside and tougher on the outside. However, those squishy discs can rupture due to injury or the wear and tear of aging. This is called a herniated disc, and it happens when some of the “jelly” oozes out and irritates the nerve root.
Discs can also become thinner and drier with age, which makes it harder for them to provide adequate cushioning. This is called cervical spondylosis, and it’s very common in older people (though not everyone has symptoms). And in some cases, the area in the spine the nerves travel through to reach other parts of the body actually becomes smaller. This is called foraminal narrowing.
According to a report published by the American Academy of Family Physicians, 14.6 percent of people with radiculopathy reported prior trauma to the spine. Spondylosis, disc protrusion or both caused 70 percent of cases.
Diagnosing Cervical Radiculopathy
An MRI allows the doctor to clearly see the nerves and discs without using special dyes or needles. In many cases, the MRI scan is the only special test that needs to be done to find what is causing your neck pain. Before the MRI, you will be asked to remove any metal objects, such as jewelry.
Nonsurgical Treatment Options
Treatments for pain caused by nerve irritation or inflamation include over-the-counter products like ibuprofen or naproxen or prescription oral or epidural steroids. Muscle relaxers and anticonvulsants are another frequent treatment option. Heat or ice may be applied to the problem area. Doctors may prescribe opioids to manage acute pain for up to eight weeks. Cervical collars can help patients manage acute pain for shorter periods up to a week. After the acute pain has passed, physical therapy can relieve symptoms. Patients with chronic pain may be prescribed antidepressants.
If nonsurgical treatments don’t provide relief, the surgical options often include an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion or total disc replacement. With an anterior cervical discectomy, a bone graft replaces the damaged disc. The bones grow together, forming a new mass called a fusion.
With a total disc replacement, the damaged disc is removed and replaced by a high-tech artificial disc. The only artificial disc approved for multiple level (disc) replacements is the Mobi-C. The Mobi-C implant consists of two metal plates that slide over a medical-grade polyethylene (plastic) insert sandwiched between them. This allows for a more natural range of motion and also eliminates the wear and tear a fusion can place on the surrounding the bone graft.
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If you have questions about spinal stenosis or the minimally invasive spine procedures offered by DISC of Louisiana, please contact us to schedule an evaluation at one of our clinics across the south Louisiana region.
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