How to treat slipped disc in the neck (cervical spine)

Written by: Mr Ahmed Ibrahim
Published: | Updated: 10/05/2023
Edited by: Robert Smith

Most people are familiar with sciatica or pain in the back and leg caused by a slipped disc in the back. What is less commonly experienced but is equally debilitating is a slipped disc in the neck, also known as the cervical spine.

Mr Ahmed Ibrahim is a highly-experienced neurosurgeon who specialises in this condition. We recently spoke with him to discuss how it should be treated.

What are the causes of slipped disc?

One of the main causes of a slipped disc is age-related wear and tear changes typically seen in the adult spine. There are genetic and environmental factors that predispose some individuals to develop herniations, which are not fully understood at present. The age of the onset of disc prolapse is variable but can often begin after the age 30 but can sometimes affect those in their 20s. Trauma is another less common cause of disc prolapse.


What are the symptoms of neck disc prolapse?

There are two types of symptoms of neck disc prolapse:


Neck and arm symptoms


Disc prolapses that cause entrapment of the neck nerves result in pain which often starts in the neck and can radiate to the arm or the shoulder blades. In addition to pain, there may be numbness, tingling or pins and needles affecting the arms, hands or fingers.


Potentially severe neurological disability


If a slipped disc compresses the spinal cord directly, then this can lead to spinal cord dysfunction that can lead to numbness of fingertips, Loss of hand dexterity, limb weakness and imbalance when walking, as well as bladder dysfunction. If left untreated, it can lead to inability to walk. Loss of hand dexterity is often noticed when tying shoelaces, wearing jewellery, buttoning up or zipping clothing.


How is slipped disc investigated and treated?

The best way to confirm a diagnosis of a slipped disc is by performing an MRI scan. Other methods such as X-Ray and CT scans can also be helpful. Further specialist investigations such as neurophysiological tests may also be required.


How should cervical neck disc prolapse be treated?

Often simple disc prolapse-related pain will respond to physiotherapy and avoidance of triggers. Injections can be very effective to deal with the pain in the majority of patients but if the size of the disc prolapse is large or the compression is causing weakness and in the event injections do not result in significant improvement then surgery would become indicated.

The good news is that if disc prolapse that causes disc or cord compression is picked up and treated early, a full recovery is achievable.


What are the different types of cervical spine surgery?


Disc replacement


This form of treatment for slipped disc is an excellent option in younger individuals or those who lead a very active lifestyle and wish to preserve neck motion. This is relatively new treatment method for slipped disc, and a careful specialist evaluation is need to determine suitability.


Discectomy and fusion surgery


A standard treatment option for slipped disc that is tried and tested is the complete removal of the herniated disc and its replacement of a cage that promotes fusion. The option removes the defective disc fully and has an excellent outcome for most patients.


Posterior cervical foraminotomy


For cervical spine patients who experience pain from compression of a single nerve root without compression of the cord can be candidates for cervical foraminotomy. The surgery is performed through the back of the neck and can be performed through keyhole surgery.


Posterior cervical fusion


When multiple discs in the neck cause cord compression, a good option is removing the bones in the back of the spinal canal, by performing laminectomy followed by instrumented stabilisation. This can decompress the spinal cord over a long segment and has an excellent outcome.


How long does it take to recover from cervical spine surgery?

Surgery of the cervical spine is generally speaking very well tolerated. Hospital stay is often as short as one night but can be as long as three nights.


The vast majority of patients with a slipped disc will experience an improvement in their symptoms soon after surgery.


In summary, if a person experiences persistent pain, numbness, weakness or hand dexterity issues, then early consultation with a specialist is recommended. Non-surgical treatment may be advised initially, but surgical intervention may be necessary. If you believe you may have symptoms of slipped disc and would like it to be investigated, we recommend getting in contact with a leading consultant neurosurgeon such as Mr Ibrahim. Visit his Top Doctors profile to arrange a consultation.

By Mr Ahmed Ibrahim

Mr Ahmed Ibrahim is a highly experienced consultant neurosurgeon with private practices at London Bridge Hospital at The Shard, and The Holly Private Hospital. His special interests include complex spinal neurosurgery such as spinal tumours, back and neck pain, sciatica, minimally invasive spinal surgery, cervical spondylosis, thoracic discs and degenerative spine, to name a few. 

He completed his medical training at St Bartholomew's and The Royal London and from there, went on to train in neurosurgery and spinal surgery in London. He completed a spinal fellowship in Toronto Canada.

Along with his private practice, Mr Ibrahim cares primarily for spinal patients at Queen's Hospital for the NHS. He also offers courses to GPs on the management of spinal metastasis and early recognition of cervical myelopathy to avoid permanent neurological disability. 

He has won numerous international awards for spinal surgery, including the Congress of Neurological Surgeons/American Association of Neurological Surgeons 2013 Crockard award for best international spinal fellow, and attained scholarships from the Royal College of England and HCA. His research has been shared at regional, national, and international conferences and his peer-reviewed publications have been printed in international journals, including the British Journal of Neurosurgery and the Journal of Neurosurgery Spine. Among his research interests are metastatic spinal cord compression, cervical myelopathy, and foramen magnum decompression, along with his ongoing research on a cure for spinal cord injuries using stem cells. 

In recognition of his achievements, Mr Ibrahim was recently selected to represent Europe as part of a group of six global travelling spinal fellows to visit premier spinal centres in the USA and Canada. In 2022, he spoke at the 37th annual meeting of the Cervical Spine Research Society - Europe, a highly revered meeting for experts in the field. Most recently, he was the surgeon to complete the UK’s first FlareHawk Endoscopic TLIF case. He is also a member of numerous organisations, including the British Association of Spinal Surgeons and the Society of British Neurosurgeons.  

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