How do doctors diagnose pinched nerves?

Pinched nerve is a term describing the compression of a nerve by another part of the body, including a muscle, bone or piece of connective tissue. Since the nerves are responsible for transmitting sensory and motor signals, a pinched nerve can result in pain, mobility problems and other symptoms that can make life difficult.

One of the reasons a pinched nerve can be so hard to diagnose is because it can cause symptoms along the nerve pathway that are remote from the source of nerve compression. For example, a pinched nerve in the lower spine can cause symptoms to be felt down into the lower body — including the hips, buttocks and legs.

Pinched nerves are common in the spine because there is so much nervous tissue tightly packed into an area that must bear so much weight and movement. If you are dealing with neck or back pain that you suspect is related to nerve compression, understanding how a pinched nerve is diagnosed can help you know what to expect when you see a physician or spine specialist.

How a pinched nerve is diagnosed

Many patients will schedule a visit with their primary care doctor for neck or back pain that lasts longer than a few days or a week at the most. An appointment for a pinched nerve diagnosis should typically include the following steps:

  • Review of medical history — A thorough overview of personal and family medical issues can show a likelihood for some of the conditions that can cause a pinched nerve in the spine.
  • Physical examination — A doctor can use light touch to get an idea of the severity of symptoms and ask the patient to perform basic movements that reveal mobility issues.
  • Taking diagnostic imagery — Imaging methods such as X-ray, MRI and CT scan can be used to see inside the anatomy and confirm the presence of a pinched nerve.

There are more advanced methods of diagnosis as well, including nerve block injections that can pinpoint the exact nerve being compressed. If a pinched nerve diagnosis is confirmed, you and your physician can begin to discuss treatment to relieve symptoms.

Pinched nerve treatment options

Most physicians will usually begin treatment of a pinched nerve with a course of conservative therapy that can include rest, pain medication and massage. Surgery will usually be considered once conservative treatments have been exhausted due to the highly invasive nature of traditional open back surgery.

However, if you are considering surgery because weeks or months of conservative treatment have not brought relief you’ve been hoping for, you might want to look into minimally invasive spine surgery as an alternative. These state-of-the-art procedures can be performed on an outpatient basis with a shorter recovery period for patients than traditional open spine surgery. Ask your doctor if he or she thinks you may be a candidate for minimally invasive spine surgery.

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