Pinched nerve overview

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.

One of the most common places for a pinched nerve to occur is within the spine. The vertebral column surrounds nerve roots that innervate areas throughout the body, controlling muscle movements and sensations. These nerve roots are especially vulnerable to being pinched within the tightly packed spinal canal.

Beginning signs of a pinched nerve

When a nerve is pinched, the initial symptoms may include localized pain. However, a spinal pinched nerve can also cause pains and sensations that are far removed from the point of pressure. The symptoms that arise from a pinched nerve will largely depend on the exact location of the problem. While many people associate a pinched nerve in the neck or back with localized pain near the source of the compression, this nerve compression can actually cause symptoms to develop in different, seemingly unrelated parts of the body. This can sometimes make diagnosing a patient’s discomfort difficult, as the painful symptoms are experienced in areas far removed from the spinal column.

To put it another way, when a person has a pinched nerve in the neck, localized pain can develop, as well as discomfort that travels along the length of the affected nerve, along with numbness and tingling in the fingertips, muscle weakness in the upper body and other similar symptoms. All told, a pinched nerve in the cervical region of the spine can lead to pain in the neck, shoulders, biceps, forearms, hands, fingers and various upper body muscle groups.

Similarly, a pinched nerve in the lumbar region of the spine (lower back) can cause a variety of symptoms, including low back pain. Additionally, one of the more common types of lumbar nerve compression is the irritation of the sciatic nerve. This nerve is the longest and thickest in the body, extending from the base of the spinal cord downward through the body, and is absolutely essential for regular lower body movement. The sciatic nerve is particularly susceptible to excess pressure because spinal degeneration is very common in the lower back, where the lumbar spine is highly flexible, but also heavily burdened with supporting the weight of the body. Over time, herniated discs, vertebral arthritis and other conditions can cause the sciatic nerve to become irritated. When this happens, pain may extend along the length of the nerve or cause numbness, tingling, weakness and other symptoms in the lower body. This collection of symptoms is frequently referred to as sciatica.

With that said, sciatica is an excellent example of how symptoms of a pinched nerve can vary depending on the nerve affected. In this case, the sciatic nerve becomes compressed, which can cause symptoms all the way in the toes.

Later signs of a pinched nerve

After a nerve endures constant pressure over a longer period of time, pain and muscle weakness may increase. There also may be a loss of reflexes, dexterity and sensation in the affected area, as well as weakening (atrophy) of the affected muscles.
Because a pinched nerve also might be blocked from receiving proper nutrients, the nerve fiber may eventually die and lose its ability to transmit any electrical impulses. When enough nerve fibers stop working, the skin may feel numb or a muscle may stop contracting properly.

What are the nerves?

As part of the body’s nervous system, nerves branch out from the brain and spinal cord to carry instructions to every area of the body. Essentially, the nerves are like electrical wires that allow signals to travel from the brain to the spinal cord to the organs and extremities, and back again. Nerves within the brain and spinal cord are part of the central nervous system, while nerves that run from the spine to other areas of the body are called peripheral nerves. The peripheral nerves originate as nerve roots that exit the spinal cord and then branch off to spread throughout the body. The nerves that travel to muscles allow the muscles to move. Nerves also pass to the skin, providing the ability to feel.

After a nerve gets pinched

If a nerve is “pinched,” the flow up and down the inside of the nerve is reduced or blocked and the nutrients stop moving. Eventually, the nerve membrane starts to lose its ability to transmit electrical impulses, and the nerve fiber may eventually die. When enough fibers stop working, the skin may feel numb or a muscle may not contract.

Your next steps …

You can decrease your risk of developing a spinal pinched nerve by taking simple precautionary measures. For example, you can learn what steps to take 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. To better educate yourself, we suggest you take a look at our pinched nerve causes section.

If you think you may be showing signs of an impinged nerve, you can review our pinched nerve symptoms page for more detailed information. One important caveat is that while it can be helpful to know that you have a pinched nerve, it is far more important to identify the cause of the nerve compression. If the cause can be identified, it may be able to be addressed, alleviating the nerve compression — and your subsequent symptoms in the process.

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, the symptoms of nerve compression can be effectively managed with a series of nonsurgical, conservative techniques such as low-impact exercise, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, hot/cold therapy and other methods. However, if this approach does not provide acceptable results over the course of several weeks or months, surgery may be an option.

You can also visit our FAQ page for some of the most commonly asked questions that the surgeons at Laser Spine Institute encounter. If you want to learn more about how we can help you, please feel free to contact us. We’ll be happy to review your recent MRI with you and help you determine the best next step.

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