If you have ever experienced any pain in your neck or back, you may be familiar with the term “pinched nerve.” In fact, if you have seen a doctor regarding your 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 in the spine 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 signify pain. The compression also can limit the nerve 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 some reasons why some people might be at more risk for a spinal pinched nerve than others. Some of the most common risk factors for a pinched nerve 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 Disc: 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 on the spinal cord or its nerve roots.
- Excess Weight: Being overweight puts extra strain on the spine which can lead to degeneration and injuries that can 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.
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: Symptoms can be felt in the neck, shoulders, biceps, forearms, hands, fingers, and various upper body muscle groups.
- Pinched nerve in the thoracic spine: 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: 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
- Herniated discs
- Collapsed discs
- Bulging discs
- Spinal stenosis
- Foraminal stenosis
- Stiff tendons
- Muscle spasms
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 are feeling, 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 is a chance you could be asked to get an X-Ray or MRI so your doctor can see the area where your nerve is pinched. There are also special nerve tests so 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 pinched nerve symptoms after trying a course of nonsurgical 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.
BEST Health System
If you are interested in learning more about pinched nerves and treatment options available through BEST, contact our team today.