How does a pinched nerve in the neck cause pain?

Chronic neck pain can make the simplest everyday tasks into painful ordeals while also affecting work and relationships. A pinched nerve in the neck is one of the most enduring causes of chronic pain because unlike a strained muscle or sprained ligament that can heal over time, the causes of nerve compression can be related to irreversible age-related conditions.

If you’ve been diagnosed with a pinched nerve in the neck, or suspect one might be the cause of your symptoms, getting information about your condition is important. It can help you and your doctor develop a plan of care to hopefully return you to a better quality of life.

Causes of a pinched nerve in the neck

The spine is built for two main functions. The first is protecting the spinal cord as it travels from the brain to the rest of the body, enabling information about movement, sensations and more to be sent back and forth. The second is supporting the weight of the upper body, keeping it upright while still allowing for movement. To accomplish this, the spine is constructed of a stack of bones called vertebrae that are linked by facet joints and cushioned by rubbery discs.

With age and everyday wear and tear, these parts begin to break down, causing conditions which can narrow the spine and compress, or pinch, the spinal cord and its nerve roots. Here are some of the most common spine conditions related to nerve compression:

  • Herniated discs
  • Bulging or protruding discs
  • Bone spurs
  • Spondylolisthesis or vertebral slippage
  • Facet syndrome

The cervical (upper) spine runs from the base of the skull through the neck, ending just above the collar bone. This region consists of seven vertebra numbered C1 – C7 from the top to the bottom and discs that sit between them. Since this part of this spine is responsible for supporting the weight of the head and for its range of motion, it can be especially prone to developing a pinched nerve.

Symptoms caused by a pinched nerve in the neck

Symptoms of a pinched nerve root in the neck include local pain and radiating symptoms of tingling, numbness and muscle weakness that travel into the shoulders, arms and hands. Spinal cord compression in the neck can lead to a loss of fine motor skills and walking difficulties.

How do I treat a pinched nerve?

If you are experiencing these symptoms, either for the first time or as a recent flare-up, see your doctor for a detailed diagnosis and to develop a treatment plan.

Initially, many doctors recommend conservative (nonsurgical) treatments to relieve the pain of a pinched nerve in the neck. Depending on what is causing your spinal nerve compression, your doctor may advise you to start one or more of the following nonsurgical treatment methods:

  • Anti-inflammatory and pain medication, both over-the-counter and prescription
  • Physical therapy
  • Corticosteroid injections
  • Low-impact exercises
  • Stretches
  • Hot/cold compresses

You can also look into alternative treatments, such as massage therapy and chiropractic care. While these alternative methods are not widely accepted in the medical community, many patients report finding relief from these therapies. If you have undergone several months of conservative and alternative treatments and you are still in pain, your doctor may recommend spine surgery to treat your pinched nerve.

Surgery to treat a pinched nerve in the neck is usually aimed toward decompressing nerves. However, it is seen as a last-resort treatment because of the invasive nature of most procedures. There have been developments in medical technology and surgical technique that have made a more minimally invasive approach to spine surgery possible. If you are exploring surgery after exhausting conservative treatment options, ask your doctor or spine specialist if you may be a candidate for minimally invasive spine surgery.

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