Cervical Herniated Disc: What It Is and the Best Exercises for Relief

Learn more about how a herniated disc in the neck can cause pain, and feel better with these PT-approved exercises.

Published Date: Feb 7, 2024
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Neck pain can arise for any number of reasons. One possible explanation for the discomfort is a herniated disc in your cervical spine, which is the uppermost segment of the spine that runs through your neck. And while that might sound a little scary, the truth is that many people have a cervical herniated disc and don’t even know it because it doesn’t cause any symptoms, says Julianne Payton, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. 

Herniated discs are often associated with low back pain, but you can experience disc changes anywhere along your spine, including in your neck. But take heart: If you have neck pain, whether it’s because of a cervical herniated disc or not, there’s a lot you can do to feel better.

Read on to learn more about what causes a cervical herniated disc and how to treat it, including with exercises recommended by our Hinge Health physical therapists.

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Our Hinge Health Experts

Julianne Payton, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Payton is a Hinge Health physical therapist with 8 years of experience and specializes in ergonomics and workplace injuries.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

What Is a Cervical Herniated Disc?

Your spine is made up of bones called vertebrae that are stacked one on top of the other like building blocks. Rubbery discs sit between vertebrae to cushion them and help with movement. When you have a cervical herniated disc, the center of one (or more) of the flat, round discs in the cervical spine has pushed against its outer ring, says Dr. Payton.

The middle of each disc has a gel-like substance that’s surrounded by a tougher outer shell. In some cases, a disc may shift in such a way that some of the liquid center gets squeezed out, but that’s not a reason to panic, says Dr. Payton. “The center coming out isn’t necessarily a major contributor to pain, and the body can reabsorb that liquid or learn to adapt.”

One way pain can become an issue when a disc herniates is when the nerves (exiting the spinal cord) become irritated, which can cause pain in the shoulder, arm, or hand. It may be uncomfortable, but in only the rarest cases is it serious, says Dr. Payton. 

No matter what caused your cervical herniated disc, you might think it’s best to limit activity. But movement should be part of your recovery. “It’s natural for people to want to restrict neck movements for fear they may cause more pain, but movement is actually really helpful for neck pain,” says Dr. Payton. In fact, research from BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders found that doing neck exercises often improves discomfort in this area (see below from some suggestions).

Herniated Disc vs. Bulging Disc: What’s the Difference?

Many people wonder what the difference is between a herniated disc and a bulging disc. The terms are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually medically different. With a bulging disc, the jelly-like inner core doesn’t get squeezed out of its outer ring. It may protrude a bit, but it doesn’t exit the outer ring, which is what occurs when a disc herniates. Regardless of terminology, the symptoms and treatment are often the same.  

Cervical Herniated Disc: A Hinge Health Perspective

You may have a cervical herniated disc diagnosis, or you might have neck pain that feels like a herniated disc. And that label may make you feel stuck, like your pain is something you just have to live with. If there’s one thing we want you to know about your herniated disc, it’s this: You’re not stuck with your pain and there are always steps you can take to get back to doing what you love. 

You may not be able to control every issue involved in your neck pain, but you do have the power to change some important things. You can always take action to improve your situation — and that often starts with moving more. As our Hinge Health care team says, movement is medicine. Movement encourages blood and oxygen delivery to tissues for healing, keeps muscles strong and limber, and helps reduce pain. In other words, don’t talk yourself out of exercise — it’s exactly what you need to treat neck pain and prevent it in the future.

Symptoms of a Cervical Herniated Disc

Herniated discs don’t always cause symptoms; and research shows that it’s common for MRIs to show cervical disc herniations even when the person isn’t reporting any pain. In those cases, there isn’t anything you need to treat, says Dr. Payton. If you do feel pain, symptoms often include:

  • Neck pain that occurs with movement.

  • Neck pain that radiates through your arm; you might also have tingling or numbness in your arms or hands.

  • Pain near your shoulder blade.

It’s not common, but it’s possible for a herniated disc to compress the spinal cord so much that it causes a sudden loss of bladder or bowel control or severe weakness in one or more limbs. This warrants immediate medical attention.

Causes of a Cervical Herniated Disc

A cervical herniated disc often happens as your body naturally ages and changes, says Dr. Payton. “It’s not necessarily something you did,” she says. The most common causes include:

Cervical Herniated Disc Prevention

Because the most common cause of a cervical herniated disc is aging, you can’t really do much to directly prevent it, says Dr. Payton. But know this: Just because you may not be able to prevent a cervical herniated disc, that doesn't mean there aren’t steps you can take to prevent it from causing you discomfort (remember: most herniated discs don’t hurt!).

By staying as active as possible, you can help prevent neck pain from occurring — whether you have a cervical herniated disc or not, says Dr. Payton.

Treatment Options

You don’t need a definitive diagnosis of a cervical herniated disc to start treating most neck pain. Some strategies include: 

Ice or heat. Either one can help relieve neck pain and soreness. Go with whichever feels better to you, says Dr. Payton.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for cervical herniated disc pain. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.

Breathing exercises. Deep breathing can calm your nervous system and, in turn, dial down your body’s pain response. One relaxing option is pursed lip breathing. Here’s how to do it:

  • Make a small circle with your lips as if you are about to whistle.

  • Then, inhale through your nose.

  • When you exhale, blow out slowly through your lips. When you increase your exhale, you can increase your sense of calm.

  • To add a soothing element, blow slowly onto the palm of your hand. See which hand feels best to you.

Physical therapy. Any movement is beneficial, but a physical therapist can tailor a regimen to your specific needs. “Hinge Health’s neck program is set up really well to address people with a cervical herniated disc,” says Dr. Payton. “First, we emphasize stretching and desensitizing nerves. As you progress, you’ll work on strengthening muscles that support the neck and help it stay as strong as possible. The goal is to help you do more of the activities you want to do with less risk of flare-up or injury.” You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

Injections. If your pain is significant and exercise and physical therapy hasn’t helped provide enough relief for you, then corticosteroid injections may be worth a try, says Dr. Payton. “These injections are relatively low-risk and not as invasive as surgery, which would be a last resort,” she says.

Exercises for Cervical Herniated Disc Pain

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Chin Tucks
  • Seated Chest Opener
  • Seated Isometric Head Tilts
  • Head Turns With Hand
  • Open Book Rotations
  • Straight Arm Pulldowns

Stretching and strengthening your neck can help a lot if you have a cervical herniated disc. But don’t stop there. Moves that stretch and strengthen your entire upper body, including your chest, shoulders, upper back, and arms all help to support the neck and relieve tension and pain caused by a cervical herniated disc. 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Mix It Up

Neck pain may arise or worsen as a result of keeping your neck in one position for too long, says Dr. Payton. “If you look straight ahead at a computer most of the day, take breaks to look up, down, and side to side,” she says. “If you’re a plumber or electrician who spends a lot of time looking up, for instance, take breaks to look down. Variety is key for neck pain relief.”

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

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  2. Ma, B. (2023, August 12). Intervertebral disk. Medicine Plus. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/imagepages/19469.htm

  3. Understanding Spinal Anatomy: Intervertebral Discs. (2016, December 20). Colorado Comprehensive Spine Institute. https://www.coloradospineinstitute.com/education/anatomy/intervertebral-discs/ 

  4. Sharrak, S. & Al Khalili, Y. (2023, August 28). Cervical Disc Herniation. National Library of Medicine. StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK546618/ 

  5. Spinal Cord Compression. (n.d.). Johns Hopkins. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/spinal-cord-compression 

  6. Wu, S.-K., Chen, H.-Y., You, J.-Y., Bau, J.-G., Lin, Y.-C., & Kuo, L.-C. (2022). Outcomes of active cervical therapeutic exercise on dynamic intervertebral foramen changes in neck pain patients with disc herniation. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 23(1). doi:10.1186/s12891-022-05670-6

  7. Herniated cervical disc. (2022, September). Mayfield Brain and Spine. Retrieved from https://mayfieldclinic.com/pe-hcdisc.htm

  8. Cervical Disc Herniation. (n.d.). Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Retrieved from https://www.columbiadoctors.org/health-library/condition/cervical-disc-herniation/    

  9. Cervical Osteoarthritis (Arthritis in the Neck). (n.d.). Bon Secours. Retrieved from https://www.bonsecours.com/health-care-services/spine-care/conditions/cervical-osteoarthritis

  10. Therapeutic Injections for Neck Pain. (n.d.). NYU Langone Health. Retrieved from  https://nyulangone.org/conditions/neck-pain/treatments/therapeutic-injections-for-neck-pain 

  11. Nakashima, H., Yukawa, Y., Suda, K., Yamagata, M., Ueta, T., & Kato, F. (2015). Abnormal Findings on Magnetic Resonance Images of the Cervical Spines in 1211 Asymptomatic Subjects. Spine, 40(6), 392–398. doi:10.1097/brs.0000000000000775