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When Is Neck Surgery Necessary?

Let’s clear up a common misconception: When you make an appointment with a spine surgeon to address your neck pain, it doesn’t mean that neck surgery is definitely in your future. In fact, at DISC Sports & Spine Center, we find the opposite to be true—most cases of neck pain can be treated without the need for surgery. 

So you may be wondering, “When is neck surgery necessary?” Here, we’ll discuss some non-surgical treatment options to explore, as well as the main indications that surgery may be warranted. 

Treating Neck Pain Without Surgery

Neck pain and other troubling symptoms can have a number of causes, including muscle strains, arthritis, injury, or degenerative changes in your spine. It is quite rare for neck surgery to be considered a surgical emergency, so most of the time, it is recommended to try other treatments first. Some are simple remedies that you can try at home; others require a visit to your doctor. Typical treatments include:

  • Rest
  • Heat and cold therapy
  • Medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, or prescription pain medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Soft tissue massage
  • Acupuncture
  • Chiropractic manipulation
  • Steroid injections

With time and the use of the above treatments, neck pain will usually improve. 

Commons Reasons to Consider Neck Surgery

Every patient and every situation is unique, so it is hard to make a blanket statement about when neck surgery is necessary. However, there are certain conditions that may lead your doctor to suggest a surgical solution.

    • You’ve tried non-surgical treatments without success. If you’ve given it an appropriate amount of time and your neck pain or associated symptoms are still severe or interfering with your daily life, surgery may help. 
    • You have instability in your neck. Excessive movement between the bones in your neck, or instability, can cause sharp pain with motion or certain positions. You may also experience painful muscle spasms. A surgery called anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) can correct this by “fusing” adjacent vertebrae together, which eliminates that painful movement. 
    • You have nerve compression that is significant or worsening. Cervical radiculopathy is the medical term for a pinched nerve in your neck. This can lead to pain, numbness, and weakness anywhere along the nerve path, which means you can feel it in your shoulders or down your arms. Surgery can be performed to remove the source of pressure on your nerves, such as a herniated disc. 
    • Your spinal cord is being compressed. Certain neck conditions, including age-related changes to your spine, can put pressure on your spinal cord. You may develop pain or stiffness, problems with balance and coordination, or difficulties with fine motor skills. A surgical procedure to create more room for your spinal cord, such as a laminoplasty, may be used to correct this. 

How DISC Can Help

If you’ve been dealing with ongoing neck pain or are experiencing signs of nerve or spinal cord compression, it’s time to schedule an appointment with a doctor. And if you are looking for an expert you can trust, be sure to make that appointment with a DISC physician.  

Our board-certified and fellowship-trained doctors at DISC Sports & Spine Center practice according to the same philosophy: to find the least invasive solution to get you back to an active and pain-free life. Simply put, this means we always explore all non-surgical options before considering surgery.

And even when neck surgery is necessary, there’s a good chance that we can find a minimally invasive spine surgery to correct the problem. Why undergo an extensive surgery with a lengthy hospitalization if we can instead perform an outpatient procedure and provide you with an excellent outcome? That’s our goal for you. 

We invite you to come visit our state-of-the-art facilities, talk with our staff, and learn how we can help


Grant D. Shifflett, MD

About the author

Grant D. Shifflett, MD Dr. Grant D. Shifflett is a fellowship-trained orthopedic spine surgeon. Handpicked by Dr. Robert S. Bray Jr. to join DISC Sports & Spine Center, Dr. Shifflett specializes in the application of minimally invasive and microsurgical techniques to the entire spectrum of cervical, thoracic and lumbar spinal conditions, from the simple to the most complex. Whether treating a patient with chronic pain or an acute injury, his ultimate goal is to restore function and quality of life with minimal tissue disruption. Read more articles by Grant D. Shifflett, MD.

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