In addition to pain, a common symptom of a pinched nerve in the neck or back is muscular weakness that can limit mobility. For many, this is worse than the pain because simple activities like working in the yard, grocery shopping or taking a walk become more difficult, if not impossible.
If you’ve been dealing with this, you may wonder why a pinched nerve causes muscular weakness. Answering this question requires understanding how spinal nerve compression happens and how it interferes with the muscles.
Pinched nerves and radiating symptoms
The spine is made of interconnected parts — vertebrae, joints and discs — that protect the spinal cord and support the upper body. This arrangement makes the spine flexible and allows for everyday activities like walking and lifting. But these spinal components can wear out after years of movement, aging and sometimes, injury.
Conditions like bone spurs and herniated discs can narrow the spinal canal or nerve exits, which compresses tightly packed nerves. This compression, commonly referred to as a pinched nerve, is the root of painful neck and back symptoms that affect millions of patients every year.
Because the nerves are responsible for sending and receiving sensory and motor signals between the brain and the rest of the body, interference with a nerve at one location can affect its ability to send signals to the rest of the body.
In the spine — where nerve roots branch off the central spinal cord and travel throughout the body — the location of symptoms will depend on the location of the pinched nerve.
Here are the three main regions of the spine and the corresponding location of symptoms:
- Cervical — A pinched nerve in the cervical or upper spine will cause symptoms to radiate to the shoulders, arms and hands.
- Thoracic — The thoracic is the middle part of the spine attached directly to the ribcage. Thoracic nerve compression is rare and radiating symptoms are mostly felt in the chest and abdomen.
- Lumbar — This is the lower back or bottom of the spine. A pinched nerve here can weaken the buttocks, hips and legs.
Treating muscular weakness from a pinched nerve
Upon diagnosis, physicians will typically recommend nonsurgical treatments to relieve symptoms and increase mobility for patients. Effective methods for muscular weakness include physical therapy, massage and hot or cold therapy.
If weeks or months of these therapies do not allow a return to normal activity, surgery may be considered. Decompressing a pinched nerve with an open back surgery is a direct way to relieve muscular weakness and other painful symptoms, but there are drawbacks, including a long recovery period and some risk of infection. However, there are spine surgeons who perform minimally invasive procedures to decompress nerves with smaller, muscle sparing incisions that offer a shorter recovery period compared to traditional open spine procedures.
If you are considering surgery, ask your doctor if minimally invasive spine procedures could benefit you.