Everything you need to know about a pinched nerve
If you have ever experienced any pain in your neck or back, you’ve probably heard the term “pinched nerve.” In fact, if you have seen a doctor about neck or back pain that did not go away on its own after a few weeks, you’ve probably been diagnosed with a spinal pinched nerve. A pinched nerve is often the result of any type of degenerative spine condition that causes pain and other symptoms. Though this is a common occurrence for most people at some point in their lives, a pinched nerve can be difficult to treat because there are so many potential causes for nerve compression.
What is a pinched nerve?
A pinched nerve is a nerve under pressure. This pressure often comes from surrounding bone or soft tissues. A nerve under enough pressure will lose its ability to carry accurate signals, and its wayward signals can cause a variety of sensations in the body. For example, when a nerve is pinched or compressed, it can trigger the nerve to falsely signal pain. The compression also can limit the nerve’s ability to control the muscles it serves.
Pinched nerves can happen almost anywhere in the body but a common site for pinched nerves is the spinal column, which is home to the spinal cord and its many nerve roots.
What are the risk factors for a pinched nerve?
There are several reasons why some people might be at more risk for a spinal pinched nerve than others. Some of the most common risk factors include:
- Spinal arthritis — spinal osteoarthritis can lead to the development of bone spurs, and those can pinch nerves in the spinal column
- Bulging or herniated discs — spinal discs that are misshapen or torn can put pressure on the spinal cord or its nerve roots
- Poor posture — having bad posture can put the spine and its nerves under excessive pressure
- Excess weight — being overweight puts extra strain on the spine which can lead to degeneration and injuries that pinch a nerve
- Injury — a car crash, sports injury or fall can damage the spine and cause a pinched nerve
- Overuse — jobs or sports that require repetitive movements like lifting or twisting can increase the risk for a spinal pinched nerve
- Tumors — a tumor in the spine can pinch a nerve root or the spinal cord
- Pregnancy — likely due to weight gain and water retention, pregnant women are at a higher risk for a pinched nerve
Where can a pinched nerve occur?
As previously mentioned, a pinched nerve can happen almost anywhere in the body, but one of the most common places for a pinched nerve to occur is within the spine. The spinal column surrounds the spinal cord and its nerve roots that innervate areas throughout the body, controlling muscle movements and sensations. This nerve tissue is especially vulnerable to being pinched within the tightly packed spinal column.
The spinal column has three main sections where pinched nerves tend to be diagnosed:
- Cervical spine. The cervical spine (neck) is made up of the first seven vertebrae that begin at the base of the skull. Since this region of the spine is highly mobile and supports the head, a pinched nerve in the neck is quite common.
- Thoracic spine. The thoracic spine (middle back) is made up of the 12 vertebrae below the cervical spine. This region of the spine is attached to the ribcage and is mostly stationary. That’s why a pinched nerve in the middle back is a relatively uncommon condition.
- Lumbar spine. The lumbar spine (lower back) includes the last five individual vertebrae in the spine. A pinched nerve in the lower back is a leading cause of pain that radiates from the back to the buttocks and legs, as well as muscle spasms, numbness and other discomfort.
What are the signs and symptoms of a pinched nerve?
When a nerve is pinched, your initial symptoms may include localized pain. However, a pinched spinal nerve can also cause pain, burning, tingling, numbness, muscle spasms and muscle weakness that are far removed from the point of pressure. The symptoms that arise from a pinched nerve are called radiculopathy and will largely depend on the exact location of the problem:
- Pinched nerve in the cervical spine (neck) — symptoms can be felt in the neck, shoulders, biceps, forearms, hands, fingers and various upper body muscle groups
- Pinched nerve in the thoracic spine (middle back) — symptoms can be felt in the upper or middle back and radiate through the stomach or chest, which patients might confuse for heart problems
- Pinched nerve in the lumbar spine (lower back) — symptoms can be felt in the lower back, buttocks, hips, legs and feet
What causes a pinched nerve?
A pinched nerve in the spine can be caused by almost any tissue that is close to the nerve. Most of the time, spinal pinched nerves are caused by an area of spinal degeneration or injury, but this is not always the case. Here are some common causes of pinched nerves in the spine:
- Bone spurs
- Bulging discs
- Herniated discs
- Collapsed discs
- Spinal stenosis
- Foraminal stenosis
- Stiff tendons
- Muscle spasms
How can a pinched nerve be treated?
If you have already been diagnosed with a pinched nerve in your neck or back and you’re tired of living with pain and other symptoms, we suggest that you view our page devoted to the treatment of a pinched nerve and see how the minimally invasive procedures performed by Laser Spine Institute might help you find relief from your symptoms. More often than not, however, the symptoms of nerve compression can be effectively managed with a series of nonsurgical, conservative techniques such as:
- Short-term bed rest
- Physical therapy
- Low-impact exercise and stretching
- Hot compresses
- Cold compresses
- Chiropractic care
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Pain medications
- Muscle relaxants
- Spinal injections
However, if this approach does not provide acceptable results over the course of several weeks or months, surgery may be an option.
What to expect when you visit your doctor
If you believe you have a pinched nerve in your neck or back, the first step is to visit your doctor to confirm the diagnosis. Your doctor will want to hear about the symptoms you’re feeling (pain, numbness, weakness, etc.), when they started and if any activities seem to make them worse or better. You will also be asked about your medical history and whether any of your family members have degenerative spine conditions. Finally, your doctor will give you a physical examination to test your reflexes, muscle strength, range of motion and nerve sensations. From there, your doctor should be able to say with confidence whether you have a pinched nerve or not. There’s a chance you could be asked to get an X-ray or MRI so that your doctor can see the area where your nerve is pinched. There are also special nerve tests that your doctor can perform to judge whether any nerves are damaged.
What is the prognosis for a pinched nerve?
Many patients will see a reduction in their symptoms after trying a course of nonsurgical (conservative) treatments for several weeks or months. As inflammation around the pinched nerve is reduced and muscles around the spine are built up to provide better support, patients often can find lasting relief. For some patients, however, conservative treatments do not work and surgery must be considered to physically remove the tissue causing nerve compression.
Can a pinched nerve be prevented?
You can decrease your risk of developing a spinal pinched nerve by taking simple precautionary measures. For example, you can modify your activities to limit your chances of injuring your neck or back, which in turn will protect your spinal cord and its nerve roots from being pinched. Losing excess weight and building core muscle strength also can help you prevent a spinal pinched nerve.
Visit our FAQ page for some of the most commonly asked questions that our surgeons at Laser Spine Institute encounter. If you want to learn more about how we can help you, please contact us. We’ll provide you with a free MRI review* to help you determine if you are a potential candidate for our procedures.