The cervical spine consists of the seven bones beginning at the base of the skull and running down to the trunk. The bones are separated by intervertebral discs that allow the spine to move freely. The neck has the greatest amount of movement of any area of the spine. Because of this, when one of the discs herniates and begins pressing on the nerve roots, it can be very painful, and increasing compression can eventually lead to nerve damage and loss of function.
The team at Texas Neurosurgery performs anterior cervical discectomy to remove the offending disc and either fuse the two vertebrae together or replace the disc.
What happens when a neck disc herniates?
The discs are the rubbery cushions that keep the vertebrae apart. Discs have a softer gel in the interior that is encased in a tough outer skin. Those discs can become damaged from diseases such as arthritis, from trauma, or simply from the wear-and-tear of life. If a tear develops in the outer skin, the inner gel can push outward. If the gel pushes up against an adjacent nerve root, it results in pain, numbness, or weakness in the neck and out in the arms and hands. Sometimes an injury can create a bone spur, and this can also push on the nerve root. Beyond the pain this nerve compression causes, over time the pressure can result in nerve death and loss of function in extremities such as the fingers and hands.
What is cervical discectomy?
Cervical discectomy is the process of going in and removing either the herniated part of the disc that is pushing on the nerve (or the bone spur, if that is the problem) or the entire disc. Depending on the individual circumstances of the patient, we may either fuse the two discs together or replace the disc with an artificial cervical disc. Replacing the disc is called cervical disc arthroplasty.
How is anterior cervical discectomy done?
As the name describes, anterior cervical discectomy is performed through the front (anterior) of the body. Our surgeons make a one- to a two-inch incision in the front of the neck. The thin muscle that is just under the skin is cut and moved aside. The tissue that surrounds the spine is removed, and the damaged disc is removed.
If fusing the vertebrae, we replace the damaged disc with a small bone graft that will allow the two vertebrae to fuse together over time. In fusion, we will also use a plate and screws to bind the two vertebrae together.
We may replace the damaged disc with an artificial disc. This preserves mobility that can be lost with disc fusion. There are several different models/options for artificial discs, and we will discuss your options during your consultation if the goal is disc replacement.
With either solution, the chronic pain that was caused by the nerve root compression will be gone. The function should return, and weakness in the extremities will pass. In may take some time for the damaged nerves to regenerate, so there may be some residual numbness in the fingers or parts of the affected arm. But the nerves usually will regenerate, and the numbness will pass.