Why Not Every ‘Slipped Disk’ Needs a Surgical Spotlight

Why Not Every ‘Slipped Disk’ Needs a Surgical Spotlight

You’ve probably heard the saying “I slipped a disk in my neck” but do you know what it is that people refer to when they say it? Let’s look at it together…

The disks lay between the vertebrae in the front of the spine, and they are part of the primary support and shock-absorbing system of our neck and back. There are 6 disks in the neck, 12 in the mid-back, and 5 in the low back for a total of 23. The disks in the lower back are big, like the vertebral bodies they sit between, and get progressively smaller as they go up the spine towards the head. When we bend our neck forwards, the disk compresses, and opens wider when we look up. It forms a wedge shape when we side bend left or right, and it twists when we rotate or turn the head.

The terms slipped disk, herniated disk, ruptured disk, and bulging disk (and more) all mean something similar if not exactly the same thing.

Fun fact: thanks to CAT scans and MRIs, we’ve discovered that many seemingly “normal” folks have some disk drama going on, with bulges and herniations hanging out – often without any pain at all. Crazy, right?

But here’s the plot twist. Just because your MRI shows a party of bulging disks doesn’t mean you need surgery. In fact, it might lead down the wrong path. So, unless you’re starring in your own arm-shooting pain drama or dealing with numbness and weakness, maybe hold off on the MRI frenzy.

There are “KEY” findings in the history and examination that lead to the diagnosis of a cervical disk injury. From the history, the disk patient often has arm pain, numbness, and/or muscle weakness that follows a specific pathway, such as numbness to the thumb/index finger (C6 nerve), middle of the hand & 3rd finger (C7) or to the pinky & ring finger (C8). Certain positions, such as looking up, usually irritate the neck and arm, while bending the head forward offers relief. 

Another unique history and exam finding is if the patient finds relief by putting the arm up and over their head. Similarly, letting the arm hang down is often associated with irritation. Other examination findings unique to a cervical disk injury include reproducing the arm pain by placing the head in certain positions such as bending the head back and to the side simultaneously. Another is compressing the head into the shoulders. When lifting up on the head (traction), relief of arm pain is common.  The neurological exam will usually show a reduction of sensation when we gently poke them with a sharp object, and/or they may have a weakness when compared with the opposite side.

Chiropractic treatments can be very successful in resolving cervical disk herniation signs and symptoms and should CERTAINLY be tried before agreeing to a surgical correction. And if you’d like to schedule a free consultation we can explore those options together and recommend the best solution.

Trust us, your neck will thank you later!