Treatment for a herniated cervical disc is similar to the treatment for a stiff neck. The main difference with this condition, also called cervical radiculopathy, will be symptoms that include pain that radiates into the shoulder or arm, numbness and tingling, as well as hand and arm weakness. I’ll cover the minor differences on how I’d treat this condition and show you how you can differentiate between this and general neck pain.
As always, it’s still not myelopathy, which requires a trip to the ER. Read about that HERE.
3 Exercises for Treatment of Herniated Cervical Disc
- Neck Retractions
- Nerve Glides
- Self Traction
#1 Neck Retractions for a herniated disc
This is THE neck movement for pretty much every impairment involving neck stiffness from a cervical herniated disc.
Perform 10 reps every 2-3 hours.
Use a “Test/Re-test” method with this
- TEST your neck stiffness by rotating your head to the side that’s limited
- Perform the 10 reps
- RE-TEST that same side neck rotation to see if it improved
#2 Nerve Glides for cervical herniated disc pain
This technique “flosses” the nerve, gently gliding it throughout the entire arm.
If this is too intense, bend at the elbow instead of the wrist.
2 sets of 10-15 reps, 2-3x/day. Make sure this doesn’t increase neck pain so progress it slowly.
#3 Self Traction
Traction pulls the bones of the spine apart, and can help take the pressure off the nerves that are compressed. This can help reduce neck pain. There are also some non structural related benefits as well.
The set up:
- Hooklying, lay on back, knees bent (see [A] above)
- Rest your head on the surface
- Use a towel roll [B] if flat causes neck pain
Execution: Medication style
- Make a double chin and try to make the back of your neck long
- Inhale through nose, exhale through pursed lips 5x
- Relax/Untuck the chin, do 5 more reps of the same breathing
- Repeat that 5-10 times
Traction is helpful even if you aren’t having issues. It is breathing focused so is a form of meditation.
Diagnosing Cervical Radiculopathy
The nerve related symptoms is how you differentiate cervical radiculopathy from normal neck pain. In addition to neck pain and stiffness, you also see:
- Pain that travels to the shoulder, into the arm, or around the shoulder blades
- Weakness with pushing, pulling, carrying things
- Numbness and tingling in the shoulder, arms, or fingers
There are 4 tests I perform in the clinic to “rule in” this condition and if you are interested you can view them HERE.
I won’t go into detail with them because I need 3 of the 4 to say with certainty it’s cervical radiculopathy. Often in the clinic I only get 2/4, so it’s a coin flip. It’s fine since you can see HERE that treatment for a general stiff neck is not much different.
Prognosis and what to expect
Recovery time is similar to a herniated disc in the low back, discussed (HERE) and TIME is your best friend. The biggest decreases in pain occur in the first 1-2 months, even 3-6 weeks. You can expect substantial improvements in 4-6 months. The more severe cases can take up to 2 years for fully recover since you had nerve involvement and that’s a slow healing process.
Early in the flare up, it’ll be hard to do much. As soon as you can tolerate it is it IMPERATIVE to start a range of motion and strength program to maintain as much function as you can. Our Neck Pain Fix Program is a great place to start.
It includes these exercises PLUS focuses on neck and shoulder strength combined with postural mobility work.
Don’t let your pain win.