Is my neck pain from a pinched nerve or a pulled muscle?

Neck pain can make so many basic tasks that we take for granted difficult, whether it means being able to turn your head while driving or being able to enjoy cooking a meal. If you have been living with chronic neck pain, one of the hardest parts can be getting a clear diagnosis of your symptoms, since optimal treatment can vary from condition to condition.

Two common sources of neck pain are strained or pulled muscles and pinched nerves. Knowing if you have a pinched nerve or pulled muscle in the neck typically requires a diagnosis from your primary care doctor. However, there are some key differences in the symptoms of these two conditions that can help you tell the difference. This information may help you ask questions that guide your physician when diagnosing and treating your condition — helping to get back to a more acceptable quality of life.

Pinched nerves and radiating symptoms

One of the biggest differences between pain from a pulled muscle or a pinched nerve is the presence of radiating symptoms. When a spinal nerve becomes compressed in the cervical spine (upper back), shooting pain, tingling and numbness can travel out to the shoulders, arms and hands. Motor function in the hands can also be impaired.

In contrast, with a pulled or strained muscle, local symptoms of stiffness and soreness are the norm, with some sharper pains being felt with movement. Radiating symptoms usually do not accompany muscle strain. Another way to tell the difference is in the length or persistence of symptoms. Muscle strains usually heal on their own within a short period of time, while a pinched nerve from a spine condition such as a herniated disc can be more chronic, lasting weeks or months.

Finding the treatment you need

Only a medical professional like your primary care doctor can accurately diagnose a pinched nerve or pulled muscle in the neck. A consultation should involve physical examination, review of medical history and possibly diagnostic imagery like an X-ray or an MRI.

Upon diagnosis, most physicians will prescribe an initial course of lighter treatments for both conditions. These conservative options can include:

  • Periods of rest
  • Compressing the area with alternating ice packs and heating pads
  • Over-the-counter pain medication
  • Physical therapy exercises
  • Massage therapy

If you have been diagnosed with a pinched nerve in the neck and have not found relief after months of nonsurgical treatment — even through advanced methods like epidural steroid injections — surgery will usually be considered. Among the surgical options for decompressing spinal nerves are minimally invasive procedures; these techniques can be performed on an outpatient basis with a shorter recovery period compared to a traditional open neck surgery. If you are considering surgery, make sure to explore all available options to ensure you get the best chance of finding lasting pain relief.

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