Pinched nerve in the back: overview of causes, symptoms and treatment

There are many conditions that cause a pinched nerve in the back — from arthritis to degenerative disc disease — but the symptoms are generally similar. That’s why if you’re experiencing pain or limited mobility related to the back, it’s extremely important to see your primary physician for a proper diagnosis and a targeted treatment plan. Patient education is also a critical part of treatment and learning as much as possible can help you with your goal to resume a healthy, active life.

What causes a pinched nerve in the back?

A pinched nerve, also called a compressed nerve, happens when a muscle, bone, piece of connective tissue or any other part of the body puts pressure on nerve tissue. This can be temporary, like when your arm seems to fall asleep after remaining in an odd position. Or it can be more chronic, as is the case with many spine conditions.

The spine, especially the lumbar region in the lower back, is prone to pinched nerves because so many are tightly packed into an intricately constructed area that must support the weight of the upper body. If any spinal anatomy gets displaced, such as a bulging disc or arthritic bone spur, the spinal canal or a nerve root exit can narrow. This narrowing, called spinal stenosis, can compress nerves and result in painful, debilitating symptoms.

Symptoms and treatment methods

While a pinched nerve can occur in the middle (thoracic) spine, it is far more common in the lumbar region. This is because the thoracic spine is fixed to the ribcage and is much more stable. The lumbar spine must be able to bend and twist, allowing for basic movement. The wear and tear from everyday activity can speed up the development of age-related spine conditions like arthritis or degenerative disc disease. Here are some common specific symptoms of a pinched nerve in the back:

  • Pain in the lower back in cases of lumbar compression
  • Tingling and numbness in the hips, buttocks, legs and feet
  • Muscle weakness and limited mobility in the lower body
  • Abdominal and chest pain for cases of thoracic compression

After diagnosing the source and location of nerve compression, your primary physician will typically start treatment with a course of conservative options. If hot and cold compression, rest and light exercise do not provide meaningful relief, more involved nonsurgical options like epidural steroid injections can be attempted.

Nerve decompression surgery will usually be considered once conservative options have been exhausted. This is because traditional open back procedures are highly invasive, requiring large, muscle-tearing incisions to access the spine and treat pinched nerves. If you are a candidate for surgery, you can also explore minimally invasive spine surgery.

These procedures use a smaller incision to spare supporting muscles, giving patients a faster recovery. Ask your physician or spine specialist if one of these procedures may be able to treat your condition.

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