What is a Cervical Disc? (with pictures)

Jason Wong
Jason Wong
An X-ray of the neck, including the cervical vertebrae.
An X-ray of the neck, including the cervical vertebrae.

The term cervical disc refers to a spinal disc -- or intervertebral disc -- located in the neck region. The cervical disc is a flat structure made of specialized connective tissue. It sits between pairs of cervical vertebrae, or neck bones. The cervical vertebrae are interlocking bones in the neck that form the upper portion of the spine. There is no cervical disc between the first and second cervical bone, which are called the atlas and axis, respectively.

Weakness in the hands may be a sign of degenerative disc disease.
Weakness in the hands may be a sign of degenerative disc disease.

A cervical disc acts as cushioning for the neck bones and absorbs shock when the spine bends and twists. Each disc forms a joint that allows the vertebrae to move slightly during the bending and turning of the neck; it is also made of ligaments that hold the spine together.

Each cervical disc is made up of a nucleus, a spongy and jellylike center that acts as a shock absorber. Normal activities put pressure on the body and spine. The pressure is spread evenly across the nucleus so that the impact is absorbed. The nucleus is surrounded and kept in place by the annulus, a series of hard but elastic ligament rings that form the outer wall of the cervical disc. The annulus is also known as the capsule. It is made up of interwoven layers of fibrous tissue.

In a simple analogy, a cervical disc is like a jelly donut. The jelly is the nucleus. The dough is the capsule. When there is too much pressure, the jelly is forced out of the dough. This causes a medical condition called herniated disc.

A herniated disc will usually heal itself quickly with rest.
A herniated disc will usually heal itself quickly with rest.

A herniated disc occurs when the capsule is torn due to severe pressure from repeated stresses and strains. The capsule weakens as people age and may tear from injury. When the jelly of the nucleus spills out from the capsule, it may put pressure on spinal nerves located near the disc. Enzymes and chemicals coming from the disc material may cause inflammation to the area.

Aging also causes the nucleus to dry out, lessening its capability to absorb shock. This develops into axial or disc space pain in the neck. Neck pain due to a dehydrated nucleus or a herniated disc is classified as degenerative disc disease.

In rare cases, a herniated disc must be surgically removed.
In rare cases, a herniated disc must be surgically removed.

The common symptoms of degenerative disc disease are pain, numbness, and weakness in the neck, arms, and hands. Pain may also be felt in the skull, shoulder girdle, and shoulder blades. Patients may feel tingling, or suffer from diminished strength and limited range of motion.

A herniated disk will usually heal itself after two days of bed rest. Pain relievers, anti-inflammatory medications, ice packs, or heat pads may help ease the pain. Physical therapy and appropriate exercise can relieve the pressure off inflamed nerves. Many people recover after about 2 weeks without any aggressive treatment.

If pain continues after adequate rest, consult a physician immediately. In some instances -- less than 10% -- surgery is required to treat herniated discs by removing the disc partly or entirely and maybe part of a vertebra, if necessary.

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    • An X-ray of the neck, including the cervical vertebrae.
      An X-ray of the neck, including the cervical vertebrae.
    • Weakness in the hands may be a sign of degenerative disc disease.
      Weakness in the hands may be a sign of degenerative disc disease.
    • A herniated disc will usually heal itself quickly with rest.
      A herniated disc will usually heal itself quickly with rest.
    • In rare cases, a herniated disc must be surgically removed.
      In rare cases, a herniated disc must be surgically removed.