Surgery for Cervical Radiculopathy

Neck Surgery for Radiculopathy Symptoms

Neck bones
Bones that make up the neck. Science Picture Co/Getty Images

Neck Surgery for Radiculopathy Symptoms

Cervical radiculopathy may be a mouthful to say, but those who have experienced it know it well by its symptoms: Pain, weakness, numbness and/or electrical sensations that go down one arm.

If your doctor has given you a diagnosis of cervical radiculopathy, you likely also know that the condition is related to compression of one or more spinal nerve roots in your neck.

Do you need surgery for this?

The short answer is maybe, although according to Caridi, Pumberger and Hughes, in their 2011 review of cervical radiculopathy, published by the Hospital for Special Surgery (in their journal,) most of the time, patients get better with the use of non-surgical therapies, both passive and active.

But, the authors say, surgery may be necessary when your radiculopathy is accompanied by motor deficits or debilitating pain that responds neither to conservative care, nor to the passing of time. Other reasons to have surgery, they concede, is when radiculopathy symptoms are disabling and your neck is also unstable.

If any of these scenarios describe your experience, you may be interested in the types of surgeries that are commonly done. The review done by Caridi and associates describes the two types of invasive procedures that are most commonly performed on neck surgery patients. These are discussed later in this article.

A third type of surgery, disc arthroplasty, is newer, but shows a lot of promise. We'll talk about that next.




Disc Arthroplasty - Should You Preserve the Motion in Your Spine?

Neck surgery
Neck surgery. MedicImage/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Disc arthroplasty, one of the many names given to spinal disc replacement surgery, is a newer type of procedure for the reduction of radiculopathy symptoms. It's used more in the neck than the low back, although the manufacture of artificial disc devices for the low back is a robust industry. Perhaps the reason more disc arthroplasties are done in the neck than in the low back is that the neck lends itself to an anterior (front) approach, which many surgeons prefer. (This is discussed in more detail in the next section.)

As the name suggests, in a disc replacement procedure, a prosthesis designed to mimic the shape and function of a natural disc is inserted to replace the one that has worn out. Of course the old disc is removed, and the area cleaned out before the artificial one is put in.

Disc arthroplasty is also called "motion preservation spine surgery." The more established surgery types generally involve fusing the area, which removes the possibility of ever moving that area again, once the procedure is complete.

But with an artificial disc, the motion is preserved, though as I mention below, actually realizing the benefits of preserving the motion does not always happen the way pro-disc replacement advocates say it will.

Similar to other spinal procedures, disc replacements are used to address cervical radiculopathy and discogenic pain. They're also used for revision surgery.

How Does Disc Arthroplasty Compare to the More Commonly Given Neck Surgeries?

Is disc arthroplasty a superior option to the tried and true spine procedures more commonly  used for addressing cervical radiculopathy symptoms? 

The jury is still out on that, but the experts at Medscape report that (as of 2014) while a number of motion preservation devices (i.e., the artificial discs that are placed into the spine during the procedure) have proven themselves, no evidence exists to say that preserving the motion - the main advantage touted by advocates - results in the prevention (or reduction) of degenerative changes above and below the surgery site.

This type of degeneration is called adjacent segment degeneration or ASD, and the risk of it is a sticking point for the other types of surgery. Reducing the possibility of ASD showing up in joints above or below the original spinal fusion site is, according to disc replacement advocates, the reason disc arthroplasty was developed in the first place.

Since that time, more research studies and reviews of studies have been released. A study on the long term effects of disc arthroplasty published in the June 2016 issue of Spine found that at 7 and 10 years out from the procedure, the devices were still working and the outcome of arthroplasty was comparable to those of conventional ACDF procedure (described in the next section) for radiculopathy symptoms, in the same time frame.

Another study by Shangguan, published in the March 2017 issue of PLoS One, found that disc arthroplasty shortened the time patients had to be in surgery, and also resulted in better flexibility (range of motion) at the place where the surgery was performed.

Other than those two measures, disc replacement surgery outcomes were similar or comparable to those associated with ACDF, but not better. Such measures include how much blood is lost during the procedure, neck and arm pain scores post-operatively, and problems, called "adverse events" that crop up later, also post-operatively.

And finally, sometimes it's not as simple as having just one disc replaced. Often people with cervical radiculopathy or discogenic pain need repair at more than one level.

A 2017 meta-analysis published in the European Spine Journal that compared disc arthroplasty with ACDF at two (contigious) levels found the two procedures to be about equal in terms of most of the outcomes they measured. That said, the patients' of range of motion was a little better in those who had their discs replaced. Even with these results, the authors caution that the use of disc replacement at more than one level of the spine is considered "controversial."



Anterior Cervical Discectomy with and without Fusion

Spinal surgery hardware
Spinal surgery hardware. BSIP/UIG/Collection:Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Anterior Cervical Discectomy

The first, (and likely the most commonly done) surgery for cervical radiculopathy symptoms is the anterior cervical decompression, aka ACD. As we'll talk about below, a fusion is also done with ACD and in that case, the acronym is ACDF.

An anterior cervical discectomy is a procedure in which the surgeon cuts into the neck from the front (in the throat area, to be exact) to reach and remove damaged intervertebral disc material. In an anterior cervical discectomy, the neck muscles are moved away to expose several structures, namely, the  trachea, esophagus, disc, and spinal bones.

Caridi et. al. say that in general, surgeons prefer the “anterior approach” because it provides them with the best opportunity to restore the natural neck curve (called cervical lordosis), to stabilize the spine and to predictably decompress the spinal nerve root.

Anterior Cervical Discectomy with Fusion

Anterior cervical decompression is done with and without fusion, but most surgeons prefer to fuse. That said, the "to fuse or not to fuse"decision for 1- or 2-level ACD surgeries is a controversial topic among spine specialists. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine found that the more levels being decompressed and fused, the greater the risk for post operative neck and arm pain as well as other problems.

The insertion of hardware, i.e., plates, cages, screws and the like my help your chances of a successful fusion, according to Caridi. The authors also say that hardware may help decrease posture issues (kyphosis, in particular) as well as some types of bone graft complications.

Generally when you have more than one level being fused, your surgeon will use an "anterior plate." This is for your safety and the success of the procedure.

Richardo Botelho, et. al., in their March 2012 review published in the Open Orthopedic Journal entitled, “The Choice of the Best Surgery After Single Level Anterior Cervical Spine Discectomy: A Systematic Review” found moderate evidence that there’s no significant

Should You Consent to Fusion?

This is a tricky question that depends on a variety of factors. Again, if your surgeon is operating on more than one contiguous level of your spine, the answer may be yes. But a 2012 review of literature published in the Open Orthopedic Journal found minimal, if any difference between results from ACD and ACDF. The same researchers found only limited evidence that having a fusion along with an ACD (i.e., ACDF) surgery yielded better surgical outcomes than the full ACD.

It's best to discuss your options with your surgeons thoroughly, and get a second opinion if you have questions or concerns on this important decision.


Laminoforaminotmy for Cervical Radiculopathy Symptoms

Vertebra or spinal bone
Vertebra or spinal bone. Images

The next most common surgery for cervical radiculopathy, called posterior cervical laminoforaminotomy, takes a posterior (i.e., back) approach.

About Laminoforaminotmy for Cervical Radiculopathy Symptoms

Before you run away from this scary-looking term, let’s break it apart to understand what the procedure is about. As we’ve already discussed, posterior refers to an approach from the back, and cervical refers to your neck. The suffix –otomy means to cut into but not necessarily remove.

The terms “lamino” and “foramino” refer to areas of the spinal bone and/or column.

The lamina is a part of the bony ring in back of an individual vertebra. The lamina extends behind the transverse process on one side of the vertebra, to the base (on the same side) of the spinous process in back.

The term foramin means hole, and when talking about the spine, it refers to the holes on either side of the spinal column at every level that are made by pairs of neighboring, stacked (1 upper and 1 lower) vertebrae.

The foramen house the spinal nerve root, and the lamina is the part of the individual bone that forms the roof and floor of the foramin.

Put it All Back Together - What is a Laminoforaminotomy?

Putting it back together again, the term posterior cervical laminoforaminotomy is a procedure in which the surgeon enters through the back of the neck to cut into, but not necessarily remove one, two or both of these areas of the spine; this would be the lamina, which is located at the back part of an individual bone, and also one or more of the holes at the side.

This procedure is done to make room for nerves. The goal of the surgery is to allow the passage of nerves through the foramin to occur unimpeded. By removing bone material in the lamina and/or the foramin, the spine is said to be “decompressed.”

Posterior Approach to Neck Surgery - The Benefits

The benefits to using a posterior approach are that fusion is generally not necessary and that the surgeon can maintain good spinal balance and alignment.

The drawback is that the amount of decompression that can be done in a surgery like this is limited. Consequently, according to Calibri, et. al. the best use for a posterior approach may be to remove soft disc fragments that cause neuroforaminal spinal stenosis (a condition that can and does cause cervical radiculopathy).

When it comes down to it, the choice of surgery has more to do with your surgeon's preferred technique and the ability to maintain spinal alignment and balance during and after the procedure, Caridi, et. al. say.


Botelho, Richardo, V., et. al. The Choice of the Best Surgery After Single Level Anterior Cervical Spine Discectomy: A Systematic Review. Open Orthop J. March 2012. Accessed Jan 2016.

Caridi, John M., M.D., Pumberger, Matthias, M.D., Hughes, Alexander, P., M.D. Cervical Radiculopathy: A Review. Hospital for Special Surgery. Sept. 2011. Accessed Jan 2016.

Sasso W. Long-Term Clinical Outcomes of Cervical Disc Arthroplasty: A Prospective, Randomized, Controlled Trial. Spine. June 2016.

Shangguan, L. Discover cervical disc arthroplasty versus anterior cervical discectomy and fusion in symptomatic cervical disc diseases: A meta-analysis. PLoS One. March. 2017

Zou, S. Anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) versus cervical disc arthroplasty (CDA) for two contiguous levels cervical disc degenerative disease: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Eur Spine J. April 2017