Is “pinched nerve” a real type of spinal condition and how does it happen?
As anyone unfortunate enough to have experienced the accompanying pain will tell you, nerves do, indeed, become pinched. The correct medical terminology, however, is “radiculopathy”, which is defined as the symptoms that result from a nerve becoming compressed or irritated at the point where it branches from the spinal column and moves out into the body.
The irritation or compression that leads to pinched nerves is often due to nearby tissue, mainly cartilage, disc material, ligaments, and bones, becoming inflamed or pushed out of place or in some other fashion placing pressure on the nerve. Not only does this interfere with the nerve’s function of carrying information, it also results in pain and muscle weakness.
Radiculopathy is divided into three types, based on the area of the body that is affected. These types are:
- Cervical Radiculopathy – the cervical area of the spine is the neck. When nerves in the neck become pinched, symptoms and sensations, such as numbness and tingling, as well as pain and weakness, are felt in the arms and hands.
- Thoracic Radiculopathy – the upper back is referred to as the thoracic area of the spine. This is the region where you are least likely to experience radiculopathy. When it does appear, the symptoms are usually felt as a band of pain that wraps around the chest.
- Lumbar Radiculopathy – the lumbar region of the spine is what we call the lower back and this is where radiculopathy is most commonly experienced.
What Causes a Nerve to Become Pinched?
It may not always be possible to determine the exact cause of a nerve becoming compressed or irritated by the tissue surrounding it. Some of the more common causes include:
- Trauma or injury
- Degenerative changes in the surrounding discs – most often related to aging
- Bone spurs – the additional bone material serves to decrease the space surrounding the nerves, resulting in pressure
- Arthritis in the wrist – the three most common types of arthritis that affect the wrist are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and posttraumatic arthritis, which can lead to compression of nerves such as the ulnar and median nerves (carpal tunnel syndrome)
- Diabetes – diabetics suffer nerve compression at a higher rate than the rest of the population with symptoms possibly arising from a greater state of nerve vulnerability
- Pregnancy – the additional weight gain and water retention that goes with pregnancy can encroach on the nerve pathways
- Work-related repetitive movements or stress – perhaps the best known example of this is carpal tunnel syndrome
- Recreational and sporting activities – common sources of repetitive motion
- Obesity – carrying extra weight may put pressure on nerves
Pinched nerves may be relatively minor or they may be extremely painful. Treatment will depend upon the cause, level of severity and whether the condition is temporary or longer-lasting. Obviously, the sooner you see your healthcare professional for a diagnosis, the sooner you will be on the road to healing. In many cases, rest and avoiding the suspected cause will be enough. Beyond that, some combination of the following will likely be recommended:
- Medications and injections to control pain and reduce inflammation
- Physical therapy
- Limiting movement with splints or a soft brace
- Image guided injection procedures
- Surgery for those cases that affect quality of life and do not respond to more conservative methods of treatment
At Long Island Spine Rehabilitation Medicine, our physicians are committed to more than just treating your symptoms. We strongly believe that each individual is best served through an integrative treatment plan. We focus on finding the underlying cause and providing non-surgical, evidenced based solutions tailored to your specific condition and needs. If you are experiencing an issue with pain or weakness or have questions about any other condition or service, we invite you to schedule a consultation by using our convenient online form by clicking here.