A pinched nerve in the neck or back can be a painful and debilitating condition that can interfere with the most basic activities — even walking your dog or working in the yard. Local pain can be difficult to live with, but many patients also complain of symptoms that appear in other parts of the body.
It can be confusing to learn that nerve compression in your spine is the source of pain in the arms or legs. This radiating pain from a pinched nerve is very common and has to do with how the spine is constructed and how nerves function. Knowing about this condition can help you and your doctor develop a treatment plan better your chance of returning to normal activity.
How and where radiating pain occurs
The spine exists to protect the spinal cord, but also needs to support the upper body and head while allowing for movement. This flexibility is one of the main reasons nerves can so easily become compressed in the spine.
To be able to bend and flex, the spine is made up of an alternating stack of bones, called vertebrae, and rubbery discs that act as shock absorbers. Years of aging, repetitive movement and possible injury can cause these parts to move out of place and put pressure on a nerve.
Nerve compression can cause radiating pain because the nerves in the spine branch off and travel to different areas of the body. A pinched nerve can interfere with the signals that travel between the brain and extremities like the hands and feet.
The location of radiating pain corresponds to the location of the pinched nerve in the spine, which can fall into three main regions:
- Lumbar — This is the lower spine. Radiating pain from a pinched nerve here will travel to the hips, buttocks, legs and feet.
- Thoracic — This is the middle spine. Pinched nerves are rare here, but pain would travel around the ribcage to the chest and abdominal region.
- Cervical — This is the upper spine. The exiting nerve roots give feeling to the neck, shoulders, arms and hands, so a pinched nerve would cause symptoms in those locations.
How to relieve radiating pain from a pinched nerve
After diagnosing the source of radiating pain, a doctor’s initial treatment will usually consist of conservative options like rest, physical therapy, massage and over-the-counter medication.
Surgery can also be an effective treatment for a pinched nerve in the spine, but it is usually considered once other therapies have been exhausted. This is because traditional open back surgery is associated with a large incision that requires the severing of supporting muscles to access the spine and decompress the nerve.
Using a minimally invasive approach to back surgery, surgeons that can use smaller incisions to reduce the recovery time for patients when compared to open spine surgery. Ask your doctor if your condition makes you a candidate for this type of procedure.