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What is Anterior Cervical Discectomy?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Anterior cervical discectomy is a surgery performed on the cervical spine. This is the top section of the spine or the first seven vertebrae. Sometimes injury or wear and tear can cause the discs that fill the spaces between each vertebra to rupture or bulge, which results in significant pain in the neck or arms. Often times, neck pain resolves on its own, but when injury exists that is not healing, people may require anterior cervical discectomy.

The surgery itself can remove one or more damaged discs. Since this leaves space in between vertebrae, bone grafts, usually taken from the person having the surgery may be placed in the empty space where they will gradually fuse with the vertebra surrounding them. Not all anterior cervical discectomies include bone grafts, and some surgeons leave the space between two vertebrae open.

The word anterior relates to how the surgery is performed. The cervical spine is accessed via the front of the neck, and anterior means front. There are also posterior cervical discectomies, and some surgeons may prefer this method. These may be performed when bone graphing or fusing isn’t necessary.

It may seem very frightening to think about having procedures like anterior cervical discectomy. In many cases, people may be most afraid of permanent injury to the spinal cord resulting in paralysis. This is very rare and occurs in only about 1 in 10,000 cases. More often, some of the complications that might result from this surgery include failure to fully address pain, poor or incomplete fusion of bone grafts, and slight nerve damage. Other risks can include damage to the esophagus or trachea, poor or changed swallowing, and infection. As with any surgery, it’s important for patients to discuss risks versus benefits with their surgeon.

Though anterior cervical discectomy is relatively common, it is not likely to be preformed on an outpatient basis. People can expect several days to several weeks of hospitalization after the surgery, and they may require several months for complete healing. Many doctors ask patients to use a cervical collar to support the spine, and this can restrict driving. There are restrictions on movement and lifting, and each doctor will determine when these are no longer appropriate.

Another common side effect is very sore throat, and this may be addressed with pain medication or people may use pain medication for other soreness associated with the surgery. Any medication use should be approved by the doctor, however, since certain drugs like aspirin and non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen may be inappropriate. When anterior cervical discectomy is performed with fusion, and the bone graft is taken from the patient, usually from the hip or pelvis, this area can be sore and uncomfortable too. Patients are advised to watch for signs of infection and they should leave the hospital with a complete set of instructions on after care and continued recovery.

It can be a good idea to plan to have some extra help the first few weeks after this surgery is performed. If a collar is worn, other people may need to drive patients to doctor’s visits and to run errands for them. Having a friend or employee run errands and do a little housework may help promote rest and make sure that patients do not ignore doctor’s instructions. Usually within a few days after the surgery, limited amounts of activity are encouraged, and especially walking may be advocated as a means of promoting recovery.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia...
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