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What Happens During Herniated Disk Neck Surgery?

February 9th, 2011

Earlier today a patient asked me to describe what happens during a herniated disk neck surgery. That said, I had a few minutes to jot down parts of our discussion for you to learn from. Here are the highlights of our discussion.

In between the vertebrae are discs filled with a jelly like fluid contained by a more rigid structure, similar to a jelly donut. The discs help provide an articulation (joint) which facilitates movement, but more importantly they serve as shock absorber

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. Age or injury can cause the discs to leak, and the jelly or disc material can exert pressure on nearby nerves. When this occurs in the neck (cervical region), nerves leading to the arms or legs can be affected. Pain, numbness or weakness in the arms and legs can occur, and may be quite severe. While many patients heal with time and rest, herniated disk neck surgery may be required to provide relief and to prevent further damage to the nerves.

Herniated disk neck surgery is reserved for only the most serious cases. The patient will typically be treated with non-surgical methods for several months first, and neck surgery is then considered if the patient does not improve. If there are neurological problems that are being caused by the compression, such as limited functionality, loss of balance, pain, tingling or numbness, or severe headaches, the surgeon may also recommend an operation to resolve the problem.

There are two primary types of herniated disk neck surgery. The surgeon may choose to make a small incision and insert a tiny camera to view the damaged disc and then remove and or repair it. A larger incision allows the surgeon to view the damage firsthand, as well as locate any other problems in the area.

  • The first method carries a lower risk of infection and a faster recovery time
  • The second method allows the surgeon to view a more complete picture of the affected area.

Both methods involve the surgical removal of the damaged tissue, or herniated disc. Depending on the approach used and the amount of damage that must be corrected, incisions are seldom more than two inches in length and require only minimal cutting of muscle tissue.

After the damaged disc is removed, the vertebrae are often surgically fused, typically with a bone graft, to close the gap. In most cases now, a plate is added to provide greater stability. In some cases an enlargement of the opening (foramen), the canal where the nerve exits is performed. A fusion is not used in all of these cases.

Many times, surgery to correct a herniated disc can be done on an outpatient basis or with only one night in the hospital. Depending on the procedure used, post-operative pain can be minimal. Patients may be required to wear a neck brace after the operation to stabilize the area and prevent re-injury for a short period of time. The specifications for the brace and the duration of its use will vary by patient. Patients may need to limit certain activities for a time after surgery, but again the specifics are determined on a case-by-case basis. Typically, however, the recovery time is measured in weeks, although complete fusion takes several months.

I hope that helps you learn more about what happens during a neck surgery for herniated disk.

Until next time,


About the Author: Dr. Stuart Gold, M.D. is a board certified orthopedic surgeon who has 23 years experience specializing in sport injuries, joint replacement, arthritis and limb salvage. As the Director of the Orthopedic Institute, Dr. Gold recently published The Patient's Guide To Orthopedic Surgery to help patients better understand the challenges, risks and opportunities of orthopedic care.

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