When a nerve in the cervical spine (neck) is irritated or damaged and causes pain and/or neurological symptoms, doctors call this condition - cervical radiculopathy. The nerves in the spine exit the spinal column through holes in the bones of the spine (vertebrae) from the right and left sides. The nerves exiting the spinal canal (nerve roots) are numbered from 1 to 8, based on the same vertebra numbering, which starts at 1 underneath the skull. Radiculopathy can cause different pain, tingling, and numbness along the shoulder, arm, and/or hand depending on which nerve root is damaged.
If you’re experiencing pain from radiculopathy, it’s important to know the different causes, symptoms, and treatments available. Visit a doctor to get a diagnosis and to help treat and manage the pain caused by radiculopathy.
The Causes of Cervical Radiculopathy
In older people, cervical radiculopathy is usually caused by the changes that occur naturally as we age, like arthritis. In comparison, younger people are more likely to develop radiculopathy due to a sudden injury.
Other causes of radiculopathy include:
- Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease – A degenerated disc loses its natural liquid and can shrink or develop cracks/tears in the outer layer of the disc. Degenerative disc disease can start from over-use, an accident, or just the wear of everyday life. Along with some pain and weakness in the arms and hands, disc degeneration may result in a lack of neck motion.
- Cervical Herniated Disc – Also called a disc bulge, a herniated disc occurs when the gel-like center squeezes out of a tear or a split in the outer ring of the disc. A herniated disc can cause radiculopathy by pressing down on the nerve root. People suffering from a herniated disc may experience pain, numbness, or weakness in the neck, shoulders, or arms.
- Cervical Spinal Stenosis – Spinal stenosis is caused by a narrowing of the spinal canal that pinches the spinal cord. Symptoms of cervical spinal stenosis include numbness or tingling in the hand or arm, neck pain, and problems with walking or balance.
Cervical Radiculopathy: Symptoms to Look Out For
Those suffering from cervical radiculopathy typically experience pain, weakness, or numbness in areas corresponding to the affected nerve. Aside from different affected areas, types of pain can vary as well. Patients have described dull general pain to sharp burning pain.
Radiculopathy at different spine levels causes different symptoms:
- C5 Radiculopathy – C5 radiculopathy can cause pain in the upper arms and shoulder blades, but numbness or tingling is not usually associated.
- C6 Radiculopathy – C6 patients may experience pain or weakness from the neck along the arm, including the biceps, wrists, thumb, and index finger.
- C7 Radiculopathy – C7 radiculopathy is the most common and sufferers report pain or weakness from the neck to the hand, including the triceps and the middle finger.
- C8 Radiculopathy – Like radiculopathy at C6 and C7, those suffering from C8 radiculopathy experience pain primarily from the neck to hand. Patients experience weakness in hand grip, as well as pain along the inside of the arm to the ring and little fingers.
Treating Cervical Radiculopathy
There are many treatment options for cervical radiculopathy depending on the underlying causes and severity of the patient’s symptoms. For some, non-surgical treatments can help, while more severe symptoms may require surgery.
- Rest or Lifestyle Changes
Minor symptoms of radiculopathy may resolve on its own. Avoiding demanding activities, such as sports, may help. Applying ice packs or heated gel packs to the neck may also provide relief for some sufferers. Lifestyle changes, such as using better posture, can also help lessen minor symptoms of radiculopathy.
- Physical Therapy
Physical therapists can help patients develop a stretching and exercise routine to help alleviate radiculopathy symptoms.
- Medications or Injections
Over-the-counter medications, like aspirin and ibuprofen, could help reduce pain. Doctors can also prescribe prescription strength medications, such as muscle relaxants, to help manage pain. Another option is to carefully inject medication directly into the cervical spine (epidural steroid injection).
- Cervical Discectomy and Fusion
One type of surgery to relieve radiculopathy, fusion surgery, removes the unhealthy disc. The empty disc space is replaced with a bone or plastic implant filled with bone or bone graft to encourage bone to grow through the implant (fusion). The implant helps restore disc height and remove pressure on the nerves or spinal cord. The fusion stabilizes the spine and keeps the vertebrae at the surgery level from moving.
- Artificial Disc Replacement
In artificial disc replacement surgery, the worn out or damaged cervical disc is replaced by an artificial disc. In addition to restoring disc height and potentially reducing pain symptoms, artificial disc replacement may help patients keep forward-to-back, side-to-side, and left-to-right movement.
Whether radiculopathy is caused by wear and tear due to age or to injury, the associated pain can interfere with daily life. By identifying the cause of the radiculopathy, doctors can accurately determine a treatment plan to alleviate pain and symptoms, whether it be non-surgical treatments, such as rest or physical therapy, or surgical treatments, like fusion.
For some patients, replacing the damaged disc with an artificial disc, like Mobi-C Cervical Disc, may be a good alternative to fusion surgery. Talk with your doctor or surgeon to find the best treatment plan to treat your radiculopathy.
Zimmer Biomet does not practice medicine and makes no representations regarding the third-party information provided herein. These exercises are not a replacement for professional physical therapy or conservative treatment. If you are experiencing chronic pain, consult a doctor to see what treatments might be appropriate. By clicking the Reference links contained herein, you will be leaving the Zimmer Biomet website and will be redirected to the applicable Reference website(s), of which Zimmer Biomet has no affiliation.