A pinched nerve occurs when a nerve in the body becomes compressed by a different part of the anatomy, like a muscle, joint or ligament. Most people who experience a pinched nerve report symptoms of tingling, numbness and muscle weakness. In more severe cases, a burning or shooting pain and even disruption of motor skills can be described by patients.
When talking about pinched nerve types, it can be useful to categorize them by the severity of symptoms, their location and the underlying cause. Understanding pinched nerves in this way can be helpful in identifying symptoms and can provide useful information to take to a doctor or specialist when seeking treatment.
Pinched nerve types by severity
One way to think of a pinched nerve is by severity. One of the most common pinched nerve types is the feeling of a foot or arm falling asleep after laying or sitting on it for some time. The tingling and numbness felt is the result of nerve compression and usually goes away after a few minutes. Chronic nerve compression can come as a result of some of the following factors:
- Repetitive motion
If left untreated, these more severe pinched nerve types can cause permanent damage, known as entrapment neuropathy. Permanent nerve damage has no remedy, but there are effective treatments to help reduce the pain and symptoms.
Pinched nerves in the peripheral nervous system
Another way to categorize pinched nerves is by location. The nervous system is divided into two main categories, called the central and peripheral nervous systems. The central nervous system is composed of the brain and the spinal cord, while the peripheral nervous system refers to nerves in the body after they branch off from the spine.
While a nerve a can become compressed anywhere in the body, there are a few places where it is very common, mostly due to the way the anatomy is structured. Thoracic outlet syndrome in the shoulder and neck, carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrists, and piriformis syndrome in the buttocks are all examples of nerve compression in the peripheral nervous system.
Pinched nerves in the central nervous system
The spine houses the central spinal cord, which is the bundle of nerves that leaves the brain stem to make up the central nervous system. Nerve compression is a frequent condition in the spine because it is so tightly constructed, leaving little space between the spinal cord and the walls of the spinal canal.
If any part of the spine becomes displaced due to age-related deterioration or injury, it can constrict the already narrow nerve passageways and cause a pinched nerve.
Spinal pinched nerves can be difficult to diagnose because they can cause radiating symptoms out to other parts of the body. For example, sciatica, which is a compilation of symptoms resulting from compression of the sciatic nerve, can be easily confused with piriformis syndrome, which is a case of local compression of the same nerve.
Causes of pinched nerves in the spine
There are a number of underlying causes of spinal pinched nerves, but many of the conditions are related to the natural aging process. In addition to protecting the spinal cord, the spine is responsible for supporting the upper body. To allow for upper body movement, the individual bones, called vertebrae, are connected by joints and cushioned by discs. Years of everyday movement cause these parts to wear down over time, in some cases causing spinal narrowing and nerve compression. Some of the most common spinal conditions that cause pinched nerves include:
- Bulging discs
- Herniated discs
- Bone spurs, usually related to osteoarthritis
- Swollen facet joints
Treatments for pinched nerves
Despite the variety of pinched nerve types, treatment options can be similar. If you think you are experiencing the symptoms of nerve compression, you should first see your primary care doctor for an accurate diagnosis. After diagnosing the location and underlying condition of a pinched nerve, your doctor will generally recommend conservative treatments to manage the symptoms.
Many patients do report effective pain relief from methods like anti-inflammatory medication, strengthening exercises and using hot and cold compresses to improve circulation and reduce swelling, respectively.
For the different pinched nerve types that affect the spine, back surgery may become an option if a full course of conservative treatments don’t bring effective pain relief. While the goal of back surgery in these cases is to decompress the nerve and relieve symptoms, there are different approaches available.
Advances in imaging and microtools have made a minimally invasive approach to spine surgery possible. These procedures can access the affected part of the spine using smaller, muscle-sparing incisions that can offer shorter recovery times compared to traditional spine surgery. If your doctor has talked to you about the possibility of surgery, be sure to ask about the full range of surgical options now available to patients.