Many patients wonder if the source of their shoulder pain is due to a pinched nerve in the upper spine or a rotator cuff injury because symptoms from these two issues can be so similar. Many cases of shoulder pain are caused by a strain of any of the four muscles that connect the arm to the shoulder, known as the rotator cuff. Minor injuries should heal on their own after a few days of taking it easy and applying first aid like ice packs or over-the-counter medication.
However, if symptoms like pain, muscle spasms and limited mobility continue for more than a week, the underlying issue could be more serious. The best way to find out if your pain is from a pinched nerve or rotator cuff injury is to see your primary physician for an examination and diagnosis. When you make an appointment, it can be helpful to go in with as much knowledge about the potential causes and treatment options available so you can take an active role in creating a care plan.
What causes a rotator cuff injury?
Since we use our arms for nearly every activity — and they require so many precise mechanical movements — it is easy to strain or even tear the muscles that enable these motions. Whether it is from an acute sports injury, work-related repetitive motion or related to the natural aging process, the pain can be disruptive to normal activity.
Some of the most common causes of a rotator cuff injury are motions that require extended range of motion in the arm, such as house painting or tennis. The primary symptom is usually a dull ache in the shoulder accompanied by sharper spasms with certain movements like reaching or turning in your sleep.
What is a pinched spinal nerve?
Spine conditions like herniated discs or arthritic bone spurs can cause a pinched nerve because there is so much nervous tissue running through the spine. In addition to local pain, a pinched nerve in the spine can cause radiating symptoms that travel along the length of the affected nerve. For example, nerve interference in the upper spine can cause pain in the neck, shoulders and arms. While only a medical professional can confirm a diagnosis, nerve conditions often cause the following symptoms:
- Shooting or burning pain
- Muscle weakness
If you are experiencing these symptoms and they are not only limited to the shoulder region, a pinched nerve may be the likely cause. After diagnosing a spine condition, most physicians will attempt to relieve symptoms with conservative methods like physical therapy and epidural steroid injections.
Pinched nerve decompression surgery is usually seen as a last resort because it is a highly invasive procedure requiring hospitalization and a long recovery. There are now more options available for spine surgery due to advancements in surgical technique, including minimally invasive procedures that can be performed on an outpatient basis.