Chronic neck pain is a considerable public health burden that accounts for one of the top five chronic pain conditions. The pain can range from cervical intervertebral discs, facet joints to atlantoaxial joints. Cervical discogenic pain syndrome (CDPS) is a common source of neck pain with a reported prevalence between 16% to 41%. Cervical discs have a rich supply of nerve fibers that are prone to structural disruption and inflammatory reaction that makes it susceptible to pain. The commonly affected levels are C5/C6 and C6/C7, with C7 being the most common nerve root involved. Initially, the symptoms present proximally, but it can later progress to brachialgia. The pain can be resolved with conservative therapy, but refractory pain may require further intervention.
Cervical discogenic pain syndrome can be caused by degenerative changes in the intervertebral discs. These changes are usually caused by mechanical influences. Predisposing factors include sitting with prolonged neck flexion or with a protruded head posture, frequent flexion, sudden unexpected movements, and trauma. Sports-related spine injuries may also predispose individuals to CDPS.
Cervical discogenic pain syndrome is a common source of neck pain with a reported prevalence between 16% to 41%. In terms of spinal intervertebral disc disease, cervical intervertebral disc disease is second only to lumbar disc disease. It accounts for one in five orthopedic practice visits. In terms of years lost to disability and prevalence, neck pain is one of the top five chronic pain conditions. Although present in both males and females, cervical discogenic pain syndrome is more common in females. Its prevalence increases with age.
It is essential to obtain an accurate description of the pain. The history of a patient with cervical discogenic pain syndrome can vary greatly. Patients may have pain that is localized, referred, or even experience radicular pain across a specific dermatome. It is typically worse in positions involved in prolonged sitting. This pain is especially noticeable with prolonged flexion or with a protruded head posture. Bending can exacerbate this pain. Patients usually find improvement in pain with lying supine as it decreases pressure on the discs. Some may find relief in frequently changing their position. It may be worse in the morning, secondary to inappropriate postural position while sleeping.
Physical examination should include assessment for a disease presentation similar to myelopathy. Patients should be observed and examined for neurological deficits, including altered balance, motor/sensory deficits in all extremities, and upper/lower motor neuron findings. Strength and reflexes can be intact, but these findings may vary depending on the cause and degree of the condition. Patients may experience decreased sensation along a specific dermatome. They may have poor posture and limited range of motion.
The exam may include the following provocative tests in the examination of the spine:
Laboratory studies are not indicated in the diagnosis of cervical discogenic pain syndrome. Radiograph imaging is usually indicated in patients with a history of trauma or if there is any concern for a possible fracture or instability on exam. In cervical discogenic pain syndrome, radiographic findings may be normal. It may show degenerative changes, but there is little correlation with symptomatic vs. asymptomatic individuals based solely on these findings. Although MRI may identify degenerative cervical discs and offer more clarity and physiological information, it still is not able to differentiate a disc that is pathologically painful from an asymptomatic degenerative disc.
The most important adjunct in the evaluation of CDPS is cervical provocation discography. It is an image-guided procedure where a contrast agent is injected into the nucleus pulposus of the suspected intervertebral disc. The study includes disc stimulation and morphological assessment; it not only identifies painful cervical intervertebral disc, but it can depict internal derangements as well. MRI may be used as a screening tool to find potential levels of interest to perform discography. If performed properly, discography can discriminate painful, symptomatic discs from non-painful, asymptomatic discs. The combination of clinical symptoms, MRI, cervical provocative discography can help diagnose and provide direction for the management of cervical discogenic pain syndrome.
There are many approaches to the management of cervical discogenic pain syndrome, which are dependent on the cause, severity, and clinical presentation. The initial approach is always aggressive nonsurgical treatment. This includes the use of NSAIDs, partial rest, proper posture, and body mechanics along with a home exercise program. Spontaneous recovery is usually common within the first few weeks. Physical therapy should be focused on proper posture and body mechanics. The McKenzie approach has been utilized to develop a specific rehabilitation exercise program based on baseline ROM and repetitive motions of the cervical spine. In some cases, patients with cervical discogenic pain syndrome may require cervical epidural injections or nerve root blocks to facilitate their participation in physical therapy. These interventions should be used as an adjunct to therapy and are not usually effective alone.
Patients who do not respond to appropriate conservative therapies and have persistent radicular pain, progressive neurologic deficits, motor weakness, or signs of cord compression may consider surgical intervention. Patients with discogenic neck pain can potentially benefit from anterior cervical discectomy and fusion surgery. For better surgical outcomes, it is important to obtain a preoperative cervical provocative discography to determine surgical levels. This intervention has shown to be effective in pain relief and increased function.
Differential diagnosis may include cervical disc injuries, cervical spine sprain/strain injuries, atlantoaxial joint pain, cervical facet syndrome, cervical myofascial pain, fibromyalgia, or spondylosis.
Cervical discogenic pain syndrome is initially treated conservatively, so it is important to rule out the following promptly:
Prognosis varies greatly in CDPS depending on the clinical presentation and cause of cervical discogenic pain. Some patients find relief within the first few weeks of onset with conservative measures. Early intervention seems to produce better outcomes. Pain refractory to this management may need further work-up and possible surgical intervention.
Surgical intervention complications may include hemorrhage, hematoma, damage to the carotid or vertebral artery resulting in a stroke, laryngeal nerve injury leading to hoarseness or dysphagia, chronic dural leak, or damage to the spinal cord or nerve roots leading to more pain, weakness, or loss of sensation.
Patients usually go home the day of anterior cervical discectomy and fusion surgery. Early ambulation and walking are essential to promote healing and prevent complications. Opioids may be needed initially for pain control, but should slowly shift to NSAIDs about a week postoperatively. Patients may experience some difficulty swallowing that usually resolves over time. Recovery time can vary based on the initial presentation of the syndrome.
The recovery phase of rehabilitation is focused on soft-tissue overload and biomechanical dysfunction. The intent is to limit pain, normalize spinal mechanics, and to improve neuromuscular control of the cervical spine. Therapists will work to restore resting muscle length and to safely progress to the full range of motion of the cervical spine with limited pain. Exercises start simple and in a single plane and advance to involve complex muscle patterns. The maintenance phase of rehabilitation requires the patient has a full cervical range of motion with proper spine biomechanics and stabilization. Patients will transition to functional training exercises for sport or work-specific activities and progressive weight training as tolerated.
Patient education plays an important role in the management of cervical discogenic pain syndrome. Individuals need to focus on conservative measures like proper posture and body mechanics. They may also benefit from home exercise programs as well.
An interdisciplinary approach is needed to manage a complex condition like cervical discogenic pain syndrome. An interprofessional team, including a physiatrist, pain specialist, physical therapist, primary care provider, along with other healthcare professionals, can help to enhance patient-centered care. Primary care providers are the base of support. They provide initial education to patients and their families about their diagnosis. Education can lead to early conservative intervention to resolve pain. A physiatrist can help guide and manage therapies administered by physical therapists and can communicate with pain specialists and surgeons for patients with refractory pain for further intervention.
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