A pinched nerve is a very painful condition that can happen to anyone. The term describes pressure placed on a nerve due to any one of a variety of underlying causes. A very minor form of a pinched nerve would be the pins-and-needles sensation you feel from sitting on your foot for a short period of time. However, more chronic nerve compression occurs when some form of injury or deterioration causes another part of the body to press on the nerve.
To get a better understanding of exactly what is a pinched nerve, it’s helpful to give an overview of the specific causes and locations where a pinched nerve is most likely to occur. Having all this information to bring to a doctor can help to pinpoint the cause of your debilitating pain and get you back to a healthy, active lifestyle sooner.
How nerves become pinched
While any kind of tissue in the body can cause nerve compression, the most common are muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments and cartilage. These are some of the main reasons that these tissues will pinch on nerves:
- Inflamed muscles and tendons from repetitive motion injuries
- Poor posture
- Being overweight
- Traumatic injury
- Degenerative conditions like arthritis
A pinched nerve can occur anywhere the nerves travel in the body, but there are some places where it happens more frequently. For example, the wrists are vulnerable to a condition called carpal tunnel syndrome, which is nerve compression usually caused by a repetitive stress like typing on a keyboard. Another condition is piriformis syndrome, where the piriformis muscle in the buttocks becomes inflamed and pinches the long sciatic nerve.
One of the most common regions for a pinched nerve to develop however, is in the neck and back. Here, conditions like spinal arthritis and herniated discs can interfere with the spinal cord and cause debilitating symptoms that are difficult to treat.
Why so many pinched nerves happen in the neck or back
The spine is comprised of a stack of tubular bones, cushioned by rubbery discs and connected by joints. These parts work together to protect the spinal cord and the nerve roots that branch off and travel out to the rest of the body. Because there is such a large amount of nervous tissue going through such a tight amount of space, if a part gets even slightly displaced it can cause a pinched nerve.
What’s more, the spine is especially prone to degenerative conditions since it responsible for supporting the weight of the upper body and head. Year after year of everyday movement takes its toll, causing joint linings to wear out and discs to dry up and shrink. If these deteriorate enough, it can cause conditions that lead to spinal narrowing and nerve compression.
An example of one of these conditions would be a herniated disc, which occurs when the tough, fibrous exterior of a spinal disc ruptures and the softer core is pushed out into the spinal canal. While a herniated disc is not always painful by itself, there is a good chance that the disc material can press on the spinal cord or a nerve root.
Another relatively common way that pinched nerves occur in the spine is from bone spurs that often develop as a byproduct of arthritis. When the joint linings wear out, causing bone on bone friction and instability, the body will often respond to this with bone growths that are an attempt to stabilize the joint. Since there is almost no room for abnormal growth in the spine, it becomes very easy for a bone spur to cause nerve compression.
Symptoms of pinched spinal nerves
Pain can occur at the site of the compression or as radiating symptoms along the length of the affected nerve. Many patients describe pinched nerve symptoms as a burning pain that can be accompanied by tingling, numbness and even muscle weakness.
The location of the radiating symptoms for a pinched spinal nerve is dependent on the region of the spine where nerve compression occurs. Most pinched nerves in the lower, or lumbar, spine will cause these symptoms to develop in parts of the lower body like the hips and legs.
If you have a pinched nerve in the upper, or cervical, spine, you might feel pain in the neck, shoulders and arms. While rarer, a pinched nerve in the middle spine would cause symptoms to travel out to the chest and abdominal regions.
Upon diagnosis, most physicians will start with a round of lower-impact forms of therapy for a pinched nerve. These conservative treatments are designed to help you manage your symptoms, but do not treat the underlying causes of nerve compression. However, many patients do find lasting relief from these methods and are able to return to normal activities. Here are some of the treatment options that many doctors prescribe:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Light aerobic and strengthening exercise
- Hot and cold compression therapy
- Physical therapy
Surgery for a pinched nerve in the back is a treatment that many have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it is one of the few treatments that can treat a pinched nerve at the source. The goal of a spine surgery is to access the area and decompress the nerve by removing the tissue that is constricting it. However, while the majority of these spinal decompression procedures have positive outcomes, there are still drawbacks.
Traditionally, surgeons have had to use large incisions that sever supporting muscles, leading to scarring and a long recovery period. Recently though, in the last decade, advances in surgical technology have led to a more minimally invasive approach to spine surgery that shortens recovery time for patients.
This is becoming a more and more popular option as procedures become more established and doctors become more aware of them. If you are considering surgery for a pinched nerve, ask your doctor if minimally invasive spine surgery would work for your condition.