Medication is probably the first thing a lot of people think of for treatment of a pinched nerve in the neck or back, and for good reason. Anti-inflammatory medication and other types of pain medication, both over-the-counter and prescription, are common options recommended by doctors and used by millions of patients with this condition.
When combined with a comprehensive treatment plan including other conservative treatments, pinched nerve medication is an effective option that allows many people to find meaningful relief and have a normal, active life.
A pinched nerve, also known as a compressed nerve, occurs when any other part of the body, like a bone or an inflamed muscle or connective tissue, interferes with any of the nervous tissue running throughout the body. This can happen easily in the spine, where even the slightest displacement from something like a bulging spinal disc can cause painful compression of the tightly packed nerves running through. Because the nerves are responsible for transmitting sensory information, a pinched nerve can cause symptoms like pain, tingling and numbness to occur both locally and throughout the body.
While medication cannot correct the source of the problem, it can treat symptoms while the body attempts to heal itself or other corrective action is taken. If you have nerve compression in the neck or back, the first step in treatment is usually a plan of conservative therapies prescribed by your diagnosing physician. Most of the plans will generally include a recommendation for over-the-counter medication to be taken on an as-needed basis. It is important to follow your doctor’s guidelines on the proper dosage.
Over-the-counter pinched nerve medications
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the most common type of medication recommended to treat the symptoms of a pinched nerve. The main function of this type of medication is to reduce swelling, also known as inflammation, in joints, muscles and other soft tissue. This class of drugs is often used to treat arthritis, as well as minor muscle strains, for this reason.
It also offers relief for sufferers of a pinched nerve because some form of inflamed tissue, like an arthritic joint or a bone spur, is usually the cause of nerve compression. Here are some of the most common forms of over-the-counter NSAIDs:
There are other options for nonprescription pain relief as well, including acetaminophen, which does more to block pain signals and has fewer anti-inflammatory properties. Always take the correct dosage of pinched nerve medication, as even over-the-counter treatments can cause severe health issues, like heart or liver problems, if overused.
Prescription pinched nerve medications
If pain and symptoms from a pinched nerve are more severe, there are stronger medications that need a prescription from a doctor. There are a number of reasons for this, including the potential for abuse, possible side effects and the need to monitor the interactions they might have with other drugs. These are some of the classes of prescription medication that a doctor can prescribe for nerve compression in the neck or back:
- Opioids — Narcotics like oxycodone or morphine work to actively block pain signals from reaching the brain. However, these drugs can be habit forming and cause side effects like kidney problems.
- Anti-inflammatories — These work the same way as over-the-counter versions, with the primary difference being either a higher dose or coming in the form of a steroid.
- Muscle relaxants — This medicine eases symptoms by having a sedative effect on the body; one of the most common drugs is diazepam, which is marketed under the trade name Valium.
- Antidepressants — Less common than other types, this type of medication is used in certain cases because of the way it alters the sensation of pain.
While the most common delivery method for prescription pinched nerve medications is in oral pill form, there are also situations where patches and injections can be used. One common treatment for spine conditions is epidural steroid injections.
This is where an anesthesiologist will inject corticosteroid almost directly into the area of the spinal cord where the nerve compression is occurring. This can cause pain relief that lasts for weeks at a time and can be strong enough to allow patients to complete physical therapy programs that they may otherwise be unable to do.
Physician-supervised treatments like prescription drugs and steroid injections are generally thought of as last-resort options for pinched spinal nerves when more conservative methods have not been effective. If pain is still making life too difficult after these treatments have been attempted for a number of weeks or months, spine surgery may then be considered.
If you have looked into traditional open back surgery but have doubts because of some of the complications and difficulties you have heard about, you may want to talk to your physician about advances in surgical techniques.
It has become possible for spine surgery to be performed on a more minimally invasive basis, meaning smaller incisions and shorter recovery times, while still offering lasting relief because the root problem has been treated. If you want to return to a more active life, a minimally invasive procedure may be able to help you do that in a simpler way.