Nerve root overview — anatomy and causes of compression

Nerve root overview

A nerve root refers to the base of a nerve as it branches off the spinal cord to carry motor, sensory and other signals throughout the body. Originating between the vertebrae, these nerve structures can also be the source of neck or back pain if they become pinched, irritated or impinged.

Nerve root inflammation can be caused by a variety of sources, such as natural aging or traumatic injury.

Nerve root anatomy

As the spinal cord extends from the base of the brain, it makes its way through the neck (cervical spine) and middle back (thoracic spine). Nerve roots branch off the spinal cord in pairs between the cervical and thoracic vertebrae and come off the end of the cord in the lower (lumbar) spine. Originating at the spinal cord, the nerve roots travel through the body, allowing sensory signals to be sent to and from the extremities.

Nerves can be grouped into two categories:

  • Sensory. These nerves collect and process information, giving us our sense of touch and the ability to recognize other stimuli, such as pain, heat and cold.
  • Motor. These nerves are responsible for controlling muscle function throughout the body.

Nerve root irritation

If a nerve root is disrupted, many unique symptoms can develop, depending on the severity, origin and location of the affected nerve. For example, muscle weakness can result from motor nerve irritation, while radiating pain may be caused by sensory nerve problems.

Nerve root compression can be caused by a number of conditions but is most commonly associated with:

  • Inflammation or herniation of a spinal disc. Spinal discs are the spongy pads located between the vertebrae to prevent them from grinding against one another, but over time, are susceptible to deterioration. Should a disc become swollen or ruptured, it may contact a nerve root and cause compression.
  • The thinning or collapse of a spinal disc. Another type of disc degeneration is the thinning or collapse of discs. When a disc collapses, the vertebrae above and below the disc move closer together, tightening the spaces through which nerve roots travel out of the spinal column.
  • Arthritis of the spine. Osteoarthritis in the spine leads to a degeneration of cartilage on the spine’s facet joints. Once cartilage disappears, the body compensates by growing bone spurs, and these extra bone growths can impinge a nerve root.

These conditions can result from an injury but more likely caused by the natural aging process. That’s why we cannot always prevent these conditions from developing, despite our best efforts.

Nerve root compression treatment

If you have nerve root compression and are considering your treatment options, first visit your physician to receive a proper diagnosis. Your doctor will likely prescribe you conservative, nonsurgical treatments to manage your pain. These nonsurgical options can include medication, physical therapy, stretching, exercise techniques and more.

If, after several months, these treatments do not reduce your nerve root pain, you may be recommended for surgery. When researching surgical options, you may want to consider minimally invasive spine surgery from Laser Spine Institute as an alternative to traditional open spine surgery. Our highly skilled surgeons perform minimally invasive decompression and stabilization procedures to restore mobility and ease the pain caused by nerve root compression.

Contact us to speak to a member of our caring team. We can provide you with your free MRI review* and the details you need to learn if you’re a candidate for our procedures.