Any pressure on a nerve in the body is considered a pinched nerve, specifically when this nerve compression results in pain and other symptoms. A pinched nerve can occur anywhere in your body and is often a result of injury or gradual deterioration of parts of the body, like the spine.
For many adults, the spine is the most common area for a pinched nerve to develop because it is an area that continually undergoes strain and deterioration. Every movement of the body — each bend and twist — is supported and stabilized by the spine. After years of repetitive motion, the components of the spine, like the discs and joints, may begin to wear down, which can lead to misalignment and nerve compression.
Symptoms of a Pinched Nerve
The spinal canal is surrounded by nerves and nerve roots. These nerves are called peripheral nerves and are responsible for sending signals of pain, sensation and muscle movement to the arms and legs, depending on the location of the nerve. For example, a nerve branching off the lumbar spine (lower back) will send signals to the legs and feet while nerves branching off the cervical spine (neck) impact the head, shoulders or arms.
If one of these nerves near the spine becomes pinched, the following pinched nerve symptoms can develop in the neck, back and/or extremities:
- A numbness or decrease in sensation
- A radiating pain that is sharp or burning
- Muscle weakness
- Tingling, pins and needles sensation
- Slowed reflexes
For some, a pinched nerve can develop quickly from a pulled muscle or minor injury — maybe lifting or twisting incorrectly — or slowly from years of deterioration with age. If you notice that your pinched nerve symptoms do not go away with a few days of rest and over-the-counter medication, it may be an indication that you have developed a spine condition and you should see your doctor for a proper diagnosis.
Diagnosing a Pinched Nerve
To diagnose a pinched nerve, your doctor will review the location your pinched nerve symptoms. He or she will also look at your medical history and then perform a series of physical and imaging tests. The questions your doctor may ask about your symptoms include:
- When you first started to experience the pain?
- Have you started a new sport or activity?
- Have you started an exercise program or altered your current exercise program?
- Have you suffered from a recent injury or perhaps a past injury?
- Where does the pain occur?
- Are you experiencing headaches?
- Does rest or anti-inflammatory medication reduce your pain?
If you have signs of a pinched nerve in the neck, a physical exam will assist your doctor in determining how your neck is functioning. This may include asking you to bend your neck and to roll your head in various directions. Your doctor may also check whether you can rotate or twist your neck, and whether you are experiencing any tenderness to the touch.
Your doctor may also examine the nerves exiting your spine by testing numbness, reflexes and strength of muscles.
Treatment of pinched nerve symptoms
After examining your pinched nerve symptoms, your doctor will be able to determine the cause of your pain and discomfort. Once this is diagnosed, your doctor will likely recommend a series of conservative treatments to help alleviate your pinched nerve symptoms while your spine heals. This is especially common if a deteriorated or herniated disc is the cause of your pain; a series of conservative treatments can help reduce your pinched nerve systems while your body goes through the resorption process — the natural process of healing a damaged disc in the spine.
Some of the conservative treatments recommended for your pinched nerve symptoms may include:
- Pain medication
- Physical therapy
- Chiropractic care
- Weight loss and other lifestyle changes
- Stretching and yoga
- Corticosteroid injections
Typically, conservative treatment takes several months before any lasting pain relief can be experienced. If you are still suffering from severe pinched nerve symptoms after a series of conservative treatments, your doctor may recommend spine surgery to treat your condition.
Prior to deciding on whether surgery is the right choice for you, it is important to research all options for surgery such as traditional open neck or back surgery or minimally invasive spine surgery. While traditional open back surgery may be right for some people, many patients will be candidates for minimally invasive spine surgery, which has a lower risk of complication and shorter recovery time of the two options. Your doctor can help you determine which type of procedure is your best option so you can take the next step toward finding pain relief.