If you have been recently diagnosed with a pinched nerve and have a lot of questions, you are not alone. This is a condition that is related to so many other issues, so sometimes finding good information about the causes, symptoms and treatments of a pinched nerve can be difficult. The following pinched nerve FAQ (frequently asked questions) covers some of the typical concerns that you or a loved one may have about the condition.

Q: What is the difference between a pinched nerve and a compressed nerve?

A: These two terms refer to the same basic condition of a nerve becoming pinched or compressed by another part in the body, like a tendon, ligament, bone, or muscle. This can be especially painful and debilitating since the nerves themselves are responsible for transmitting pain and motor signals to the brain.

Q: Where can a pinched nerve occur?

A: Nerve compression can happen pretty much anywhere in the body, from the top of the spine where nerves first branch off from the brain, to the tips of the fingers and toes. In fact, if you’ve ever felt the tingling and numbness from a limb “falling asleep”, you’ve experienced a very simple and temporary form of nerve compression. Pinched nerves are common in the neck and back because the spine houses a large number of nerves in a very tightly packed space.

Q: What are some of the most frequent causes of a pinched nerve in the neck or back?

A: For many, spinal nerves get pinched from age-related breakdown of the components of the spine. Years of wear and tear can cause the lining of joints to rub off and the rubbery discs that cushion the spine to dry out and shrink. This leads to conditions like herniated discs and spinal arthritis that can narrow the spine and compress the spinal cord or an exiting nerve root. Other causes of pinched nerves in this region can range from simple causes like a swollen or strained muscle to more serious causes like a fracture.

Q: Can a pinched nerve go away on its own?

A: In some cases, yes, but it is largely dependent on the underlying cause. If the source of nerve compression is temporary, like from repetitive motion due to exercise, then once the strained muscle stops being inflamed, pressure should be taken off the nerve. Some conditions, like many degenerative spine problems, are more chronic. For example, a bone spur caused by spinal arthritis won’t go away on its own and would instead need to be surgically removed.

Q: Can a pinched nerve in the spine cause symptoms in other locations?

A: Yes. This is one of the factors that makes the condition so difficult to diagnose and treat. Because the nerves are responsible for carrying sensory information to and from the brain, it is possible for a pinched nerve in one part of the body to cause radiating symptoms in another part of the body where that nerve travels. Nerve compression in the spine very commonly causes radiating symptoms because it is part of the central nervous system, which is connected directly to the brain. So a pinched nerve in the lower spine can cause pain, tingling and numbness to travel down into the lower body, affecting the hips, buttocks, legs and feet.

Q: Can I treat a pinched nerve by myself?

A: While there are many effective treatments that can be performed at home, these methods should only be attempted in partnership with your doctor and as part of a comprehensive conservative treatment plan. Common conservative therapies for nerve compression include hot and cold compression therapy, massage, exercise and over-the-counter pain medication. For many patients, these types of treatments are able to provide lasting relief and a return to normal activity level.

Q: I’ve been following my doctor’s recommendation for treatment but I’m still in a lot of pain. What are my other options?

A: There are a range of more advanced pain management options for a pinched nerve, including epidural steroid injections and physical therapy. Surgery is generally reserved as a last resort option for pinched nerves in the spine due to some of the risks and potential complications involved, though many patients are able to find relief from surgical procedures.

Q: Does back surgery really work for a pinched nerve?

A: A major benefit that open back surgery offers is correcting the root cause of a pinched nerve. This is done by removing the portion of the spine, like a bone spur or bulging portion of a disc, causing the compression. While there are certain risks and difficulties that can go with traditional open back surgery, like hospitalization followed by a long recuperation period, the good news is that most back surgeries do have positive outcomes and provide lasting pain relief. In addition, there are some practices and centers that are able to perform minimally invasive spine surgery. These procedures offer the same results as traditional surgery but use shorter incisions to reduce recovery time and sometimes even eliminate the need for hospitalization.    

Other resources

If you have additional questions after reading this pinched nerve FAQ, the best place to start is with your primary care physician. Even as you research new or alternative methods of treatment, it is always advisable to consult your doctor so you can get the opinion of a medical professional who best understands your specific situation. However, it is also your responsibility as a patient to be aware of the full range of treatments available to you, so you have the best chance of finding lasting pain relief.