Pain is a symptom that goes hand-in-hand with a pinched nerve. Since the nerves are responsible for transmitting sensory signals to and from the brain, if anything interferes with one, pain is very likely.
“Pinched nerve” is a term referring to a nerve becoming compressed by another part of the body, like a muscle, ligament or bone. The duration and intensity of nerve compression depends on the underlying cause. You can have an extremely low-grade pinched nerve from sleeping in the wrong position, with the only symptoms being tingling and numbness that last less than 15 minutes.
However, more chronic conditions like strained muscles or fractured bones can cause more intense pinched nerve pain that requires medical treatment and even surgery in some cases.
A very common area for nerve compression to develop is in the neck or back. This can be hard to diagnose because the pinched nerve pain often radiates to other areas and can be easily confused with other conditions. If you have been living with debilitating neck, back or radiating pain that you think could possibly stem from nerve compression, it is important to seek proper diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible. Untreated pinched nerves can potentially lead to permanent nerve damage that can be even more difficult to treat.
How pinched nerves develop in the spine
To understand why pinched nerves happen so frequently in the neck and back, it’s useful to understand a little about the parts of the spine and how they break down and potentially cause painful nerve compression. The spine is made up of a stack of tubular bones called vertebrae, which are cushioned by rubbery discs and connected by the facet joints.
In addition to supporting the upper body and allowing for basic movement, the primary function of these parts is to protect the central nervous system that travels from the brain to every part of the body.
Nerve compression occurs because the discs and joints that hold the spine together are especially prone to age-related deterioration from all the weight and movement they encounter. This affects the nerves because the spine has a tremendous amount of nervous tissue running through it in very close quarters, so if a part of the spine gets displaced, it can cause narrowing in the spinal canal or foraminal canal.
The specific conditions that cause spinal narrowing and pinched nerve pain can range from conditions like bone spurs caused by spinal arthritis to bulging or herniated discs. While they can be caused by traumatic injury, like from an automobile or sports accident, in most cases the primary cause is years of everyday wear and tear.
What kind of pinched nerve pain do these spine conditions cause?
Pinched nerve pain is very commonly described as a burning or shooting sensation. In relation to nerve compression in the neck or back, this can be experienced both locally and as symptoms that radiate out to different areas of the body. The spine is divided into three main regions; based on where the pinched nerve is located in the spine, the symptoms may vary, such as:
- Cervical — This is the very top of the spine, running all the way from the base of the skull to the top of the ribcage. The nerves that exit from this area give sensation to the neck, shoulders, arms and hands, so a pinched nerve in this region would cause pain and symptoms here.
- Thoracic — This is the middle region of the spine, running mainly through the ribcage. Exiting nerves travel out to the chest and abdominal regions. Nerve compression is relatively rare in this area because the vertebrae and discs are fixed to the ribcage, causing less degeneration from wear and tear.
- Lumbar — This is the lower spine and goes from the ribcage down to the sacrum, which are the fused vertebrae joined to the pelvis. This is a very common area for a pinched nerve to develop due to the amount of weight it bears. Nerves from the lumbar spine travel to the hips, buttocks, legs and feet, where radiating pinched nerve pain is experienced.
In addition to burning and shooting pain, common symptoms of nerve compression are tingling, numbness and muscle weakness.
Treating pinched nerve pain
If you have been diagnosed with a pinched nerve in the spine, your primary care doctor is usually going to treat any of your symptoms with an initial plan of conservative options. Most patients will be prescribed a combination of rest, over-the-counter medications and hot\cold compresses to manage pain and symptoms. For more severe or persistent cases, you might be recommended to see a physical therapist or receive epidural steroid injections for pinched nerve pain relief.
These therapies usually prove to be a very effective method of treatment for nerve compression, but they don’t work for everyone. When weeks or months go by without an acceptable level of pain relief and a return to normal activity, many doctors and patients will start to consider back surgery. In recent years, minimally invasive spine surgery has become increasingly popular.
These are procedures that can decompress nerves using smaller incisions than traditional open back surgery, avoiding some of the difficulties like scarring and a longer recovery period that can come with it. If you are in a situation where surgery seems like the best option for your pinched nerve pain, ask your doctor if a minimally invasive spine procedure might work for you.