Understanding Herniated Disc C4/C5 and C5/C6 Injuries

Herniated discs are one of the most common injuries resulting from car accidents

Common kinds of car accidents that can lead to herniated discs include:

After an accident, you may feel pain and soreness all over. But what is a herniated disc and how do you know if you’ve got one?

Herniated Discs in the Cervical Spine 

The bones, or vertebrae, that make up the spine are cushioned on each end by discs.  The discs between each bone in the spine work like shock absorbers. A hernia is a kind of spinal cord injury that occurs when the outer layer of the disc tears and a piece of the disc is pushed out into the spinal canal. Herniated discs are also called bulged, slipped, or ruptured discs.

To understand how herniated discs work, imagine a jelly donut. When the jelly donut is compressed, the dough tears, and the jelly is squeezed from the inside of the donut outward.  The donut is the outer layer of the disc and the jelly is the inner layer. Since there is only a limited amount of space inside the spinal canal, when the “jelly” slips out, it presses on spinal nerves, causing pain that can be quite severe. 

Herniated discs can happen at any part of the spine.  But when herniated discs happen in the neck, or cervical spine, they are commonly in one of two locations: 

  • Between the C4 and C5 vertebrae; or 
  • Between the C5 and C6 vertebrae. 

Starting at the base of the skull and moving downward, the first 8 vertebrae are the “cervical vertebrae.” The first four vertebrae (C1, C2, C3, C4) form the “high cervical spine,” while the next four (C5, C6, C7, C8) form the “low cervical spine.” 

Symptoms of Herniated Disc C4/C5 and C5/C6 Injuries

Patients with a C4/C5 injury often suffer the following symptoms:

  • Pain, tingling, or numbness in the neck and arms;
  • Pain, tingling, or numbness that radiates into the shoulder; and
  • Weakness in the shoulder (deltoid muscle).

A patient with a C4/C5 injury may need help eating, dressing, bathing, or getting up and down.

The C5/C6 disc is one of the most common ones to herniate. The symptoms of a C5/C6 herniated disc include: 

  • Pain, tingling, or numbness in the thumb side of the hand; 
  • Difficulty extending the wrist muscle at the forearms; and
  • Weakness in the biceps muscles (front of the upper arms).

Severe injuries to the C5/C6 disc can result in partial paralysis in the hands, wrists, trunk and legs. 

Testing and Diagnosis of Herniated Disc C4/C5 and C5/C6 Injuries

The most common method for diagnosing herniated disc injuries is through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). An X-Ray cannot diagnose a herniated disc, but they are sometimes ordered to evaluate the vertebrae. If you are diagnosed with a herniated disc as a result of a car accident, you may be eligible for compensation for any expenses associated with your injury, including medical costs for treatment and lost wages for time off from work while seeking treatment. 

Treating Herniated Disc C4/C5 and C5/C6 Injuries

Often, the first line of treatment for herniated discs involves non-surgical interventions such as: 

  • Rest
  • Medication 
    • over-the-counter Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen or naproxen; 
    • Prescription narcotics for short-term relief;
    • Muscle relaxants; or
    • Nerve pain relief medications
  • Physical therapy
  • Injections

If these treatments do not help to ease your pain, your doctor may recommend surgical treatment options. 

Surgical treatment for herniated discs include:

  • Diskectomy (to remove the damaged disc);
  • Lumbar laminotomy; or
  • Spinal fusion.

The goals of surgical treatment include stabilizing the neck, relieving pressure on the spinal cord, and preventing further injury to the nerve root or spinal cord.