After a rear end collision, an injury that sometimes occurs when the car you are in is hit from behind, is a herniated disc in the neck area, or cervical spine. This can cause considerable pain and limitation in the victim’s daily activities.
Understanding What a Herniated Disc Is
The spine is formed of bones called vertebrae, which are cushioned by small, spongy discs. The discs are shock absorbers for the spine and help maintain its flexibility. When the neck is injured in a rear-end car accident, this may cause a disc to bulge from between the vertebrae or to rupture. This is what is referred to as a herniated disc or a ruptured disc. The most common locations for herniations of the cervical spine are at the C5 – C6 level and the C6 -C7 level. The next most common is the C4 – C5 level.
What are the Signs of a Cervical Herniated Disc?
A herniated disc in the neck, or cervical spine, causes painful pressure on the nerves in the neck. The pain often radiates into the shoulders and arms and down into the hand, causing numbness, tingling, and muscle weakness. You should report these symptoms to your doctor, who will perform additional tests, usually an MRI or a CT scan, to determine if you have a herniated disc.
How Will My Doctor Treat a Herniated Disc in My Cervical Spine?
Doctors will start with conservative treatment, including ice and heat, cervical traction, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, a short round of steroidal anti-inflammatory medication or narcotics, steroid injections, muscle relaxants, anti-depressants. Physical therapy, exercise, or osteopathic manipulation can sometimes help.
When conservative treatments fail to stop the symptoms, it may become necessary to undergo cervical spinal fusion surgery to relieve the pain caused by nerve impingement and to create space for the decompressed spinal cord and nerve roots.
How is Cervical Spinal Fusion Surgery Done?
There are two kinds of cervical spinal fusion surgery: anterior and posterior. Anterior cervical fusion is when the surgeon reaches the cervical spine through an incision in the front of the neck. Posterior cervical fusion is performed through the back of the neck. The surgeon uses a special microscope while removing the disc to eliminate the pressure on the nerve and inserts a bone graft that will fuse the vertebrae. The bone graft may come from the patient’s own hip or pelvis, from a cadaver, or may be synthetic.
The neurosurgeon generally uses metal plates or pins to ensure that bones fuse properly.
Are There Risks to Having Spine Surgery?
Cervical spinal fusion surgery must be undertaken with caution. Complications sometimes occur. These could include anesthesia problems, infection, thrombophlebitis, or nerve damage.
What Should I Expect After the Surgery?
In the first days following the surgery you will usually remain in the hospital where you will rest in bed and be given anti-inflammatory medications. You may also receive intravenous antibiotics. Once the inflammation has subsided, you’ll get out of bed and begin to walk.
You will then begin to take short walks, and will progress to mild exercises and finally to physical therapy.
The outcome will depend on how well you follow your physical therapist’s instructions and maintain a healthy lifestyle, especially avoiding smoking, which interferes with the grafting process.