A pinched or compressed nerve is a common condition that can happen anywhere in the body due to a variety of underlying factors. The duration of a pinched nerve can be short term if the compression is due to a temporarily inflamed muscle or joint, or it can last for years if it’s caused by a chronic condition like carpal tunnel syndrome or a herniated disc.
If your life has been disrupted by painful nerve compression, getting relevant pinched nerve facts is an important step toward the correct diagnosis and care plan for your situation.
Many cases of neck and back pain are caused by a pinched nerve
While a nerve can be pinched anywhere in the body, areas where there are a lot of moving parts — like joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments — are particularly prone. Our spines are a complex collection of interlocking anatomy that works to protect the spinal cord and support the upper body at the same time.
Years of everyday movement, or a sudden traumatic injury, can cause these parts to become displaced. Because there are so many tightly-packed nerves running through the spine, even a slightly bulged disc or inflamed joint can cause nerve compression that results in pain or symptoms throughout the body.
A pinched nerve can cause symptoms in other parts of the body
The spinal cord is the part of the central nervous system responsible for sending and receiving sensory and motor information between the brain and the rest of the body. It is composed of a bundle of individual nerves that connect to the brain and branch off through openings in the spine as they travel down.
Symptoms of pain, tingling and numbness can radiate to the extremities due to compression of the spinal cord or one of the nerve roots that are exiting the spinal cord. The location of symptoms will indicate in which of the three spinal regions the nerve has been pinched.
Here are the three regions of the spine and associated symptoms:
- Cervical — This is the upper part of the spine, running from the base of the skull to the top of the ribcage. A pinched nerve here will cause symptoms in the neck, shoulders and arms.
- Thoracic — This is middle spine that is mainly attached to the ribcage. Pinched nerves rarely occur in this area because it is a stable region, but can be caused by injury. Pain and symptoms would be felt in the chest and abdomen.
- Lumbar — The bottom of the spine is a common location for a pinched nerve because it supports so much weight while being flexible. Among the nerves that can be affected is the large sciatic nerve, resulting in the condition known as sciatica. Shooting pain and muscle weakness occurs in the lower back, hips, buttocks, legs and feet of patients affected with sciatica or another pinched lumbar nerve.
Pinched nerves are usually treatable with basic conservative care
Your primary care doctor should be the first medical professional you see about neck or back pain if you suspect it is related to a pinched nerve. Once a condition is diagnosed, initial treatment usually involves conservative methods, such as:
- Alternating periods of rest and light exercise
- Hot and cold compression therapy
- Over-the-counter pain medication
- Physical therapy
- Epidural steroid injections
- Lifestyle changes like losing weight or quitting smoking
There are also alternative therapies like chiropractic adjustments or acupuncture that many patients use to relieve symptoms. Always consult your doctor and keep them informed about any outside treatment you seek.
Surgery can be effective for a pinched nerve in the right situation
The goal of open back surgical treatment for a pinched nerve is decompression. A surgeon will use a large incision to access the spine and various surgical tools to remove the tissue pressing on the nerve. If a severely damaged spinal disc is the cause of the pinched nerve, the surgeon may need to remove the entire disc and insert stabilizing hardware and bone grafts to fuse the surrounding vertebrae.
Traditional open back surgery is a highly invasive process, requiring a large incision that severs supporting muscles. This results in a long and sometimes painful recovery period, in addition to an expensive overnight hospitalization and increased risk of infection. Open neck or back surgery is generally viewed as a last resort treatment for many reasons.
An alternative to traditional open back surgery involves a minimally invasive approach. During minimally invasive spine surgery, surgeons use a small incision to access the spine and decompress a pinched nerve. This can result in a shorter recovery time with less scarring, allowing patients to get back to normal activities.
If you are considering surgery to treat a pinched nerve, ask your doctor or specialist about minimally invasive options to determine your potential candidacy for this type of treatment.