How is cervical disc disease treated?

Updated: Apr 16, 2020
  • Author: Michael B Furman, MD, MS; Chief Editor: Dean H Hommer, MD  more...
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For most cervical disc disorders, studies support conservative treatment, such as the McKenzie approach and cervicothoracic stabilization programs, combined with aerobic conditioning.

The McKenzie system identifies 3 mechanical syndromes, as follows, that cause pain and compromise function:

  • The postural syndrome provokes pain when normal soft tissues are loaded statically at end ROM; pathology need not be present. Treatment aims to correct posture.

  • The dysfunction syndrome produces pain when the patient, upon attempting full movement, mechanically deforms contracted scarred soft tissue. Consequently, therapy involves stretching and remodeling of such contracted tissue.

  • The derangement syndrome produces intermittent pain when certain movements or postures occur. Specifically, pain may become centralized or peripheralized because of theoretical activity-dependent displacement of intradiscal material. Therapy attempts to correct derangement by promoting activity that centralizes pain.

The McKenzie theory recognizes that although patients may demonstrate similar signs and symptoms, one movement (eg, cervical extension) nevertheless may help some patients and aggravate symptoms in others. Indeed, McKenzie therapy does not use only extension-biased exercise. Consequently, treatment individualization and patient education play key roles.

Cervicothoracic stabilization limits pain, maximizes function, and prevents further injury. Such stabilization includes cervical spine flexibility, postural training, and strengthening. This program emphasizes patient responsibility through active participation.

Restoring flexibility prevents further repetitive microtrauma from poor movement patterning. Pain-free ROM is determined by placing the cervical spine in positions that produce and relieve symptoms. Initially, stabilization commences within established pain-free ROM and then progresses outside this ROM as pain diminishes. Soft tissue or joint restriction inhibiting ROM is treated quickly. Anterior and posterior neck muscles are stretched. Indeed, such spine and soft-tissue mobilization, passive ROM, self-stretching, and correct posturing collectively restore ROM.

Postural training commences with the patient, supervised by a therapist, in front of a mirror. The patient performs various transfer maneuvers while maintaining a neutral spine (i.e., correct posturing), with feedback from the mirror and the therapist. Patient goals include maintenance of neutral spine and demonstrating correct posture during daily activities.

These proprioceptive skills, implemented during strengthening exercises, facilitate stable, safe, and pain-free cervical posture during strenuous activity. Indeed, cervicothoracic stabilization requires strengthening and coordination of neck, shoulder, and scapular muscles. Cervical muscles include extensors, flexors, rectus capitis anterior, rectus capitis lateralis, longissimus cervicis, and longissimus capitis. Primary thoracic stabilizers include abdominals, lumbar paraspinal extensors, and latissimus dorsi. Scapular muscles include the middle and lower trapezius, serratus anterior, and rhomboids. Chest muscles include the pectoralis major and minor. Successful stabilization also requires the training of the lumbar spine and lower extremities, which provide a foundation for the cervicothoracic spine.

Stabilization exercises proceed systematically from simple to complex. Isometric and isotonic resistive exercises employ elastic bands, weight machines, and free weights. Such conditioning distributes forces away from the cervical spine. Exercise repetition ultimately encodes an engram that commands immediate, automatic cervicothoracic stabilization during everyday activity.

Butler's therapy techniques treat radicular symptoms by mobilizing the involved nerve. First, the therapist identifies "adverse neural tension," defined as pathologic mechanical and physiologic responses elicited from a nerve when its stretch properties and ROM are evaluated. Specifically, the therapist performs neurodynamic testing to evaluate a nerve's mechanical properties (e.g., its mobilization around neighboring intervertebral discs) and physiological characteristics (e.g., its response to ischemia, inflammation). Having tested the nerve in question, the therapist may institute treatment consisting initially of passive mobilization to provide CNS input without inciting a stress response and neurogenic massage to reduce perineural swelling. Later, the therapist progresses to active neuromobilization, because, according to Butler, recovering nervous tissue (like other connective tissue) requires movement to promote healing and restoration of optimum mechanical properties.

Butler admits that limited evidence suggests that neurodynamic mobilization improves clinical outcomes. However, he believes that optimizing tissue health and cardiovascular fitness, as well as minimizing negative beliefs and environmental factors, can be beneficial.

Functional restoration programs assist patients disabled by chronic cervical pain overcome obstacles to recovery. Such obstacles include deconditioning, secondary gain, poor motivation, and psychopathology. An occupational or physical therapist, athletic trainer, or nurse instructs the patient in cervical anatomy, biomechanics, pathology, and ergonomics. Patients employ preventive measures in order to prohibit further injury during all daily activities. These medically directed interdisciplinary programs have been successful at enabling workers' compensation patients to return to work. Furthermore, Wright and colleagues reported lower rates of recurrent injury, new surgery, and need for health care services for patients with chronic cervical pain who successfully completed functional restoration.

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