Pinched Nerves: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

A pinched nerve occurs when something squeezes a nerve, like the muscles or tissues around it. This can happen to nerves in your spine or limbs.

When a nerve gets pinched, you might feel pain, tingling, numbness, or weakness. These feelings can happen wherever that nerve goes in your body. For example, if a nerve in your lower back gets pinched, you might feel pain in your hips, buttocks, legs, and feet.

In this article, we’ll talk about the signs of pinched nerves, why they happen, how doctors figure out if you have one, what might go wrong, and ways to treat them.

What is a Pinched Nerve?

A pinched nerve is when a nerve is compressed or squeezed by surrounding tissues. This can cause feelings of pain, numbness, and tingling in different parts of your body. Often, this happens when a piece of a herniated disk presses on a nerve in your spine, especially in your lower back.

Pinched nerves usually happen in three main areas:

  1. Neck (Cervical Radiculopathy): When a nerve in your neck is pinched, you may feel stiffness in your neck, along with pain and numbness that can go into your shoulder and arm.

  2. Upper Middle Back (Thoracic Radiculopathy): Pinched nerves in this area can cause chest pain. If you have severe chest pain, it’s important to contact your doctor right away.

  3. Lower Back (Lumbar Radiculopathy): Pinched nerves in your lower back can lead to pain in your back, hips, buttocks, and legs.

Pinched nerves can also occur in other specific places, like the hand, elbow, and wrist. When it affects the wrist, it’s often called carpal tunnel syndrome.

The good news is that pinched nerves can usually be treated. Treatment options include resting, using over-the-counter medications, and doing physical therapy. Most people recover fully from a pinched nerve.

What Causes a Pinched Nerve?

A pinched nerve happens when the tissue around it swells or gets squeezed. Inflammation makes the area around the nerve crowded. Physical injuries can also damage the bones, cartilage, and soft tissue near the nerve.

There are various factors and risks that can lead to this condition, such as:

  1. Osteoarthritis
  2. Rheumatoid arthritis
  3. Repeated movements or overuse
  4. Degenerative joint disease
  5. Injuries to the neck, back, arms, or legs
  6. Bone fractures
  7. Burns
  8. Pregnancy
  9. Weight gain or being overweight
  10. Hypothyroidism
  11. Cancer and tumors

Your spinal nerves travel from your spinal cord to your hands and feet through small openings called intervertebral foramina. These openings are in your spine’s bones. These narrow passages are common places where nerves can get compressed.

When a spinal nerve gets squeezed while leaving the foramen, it’s called radiculopathy. Nerves all over your body can also be affected, causing nerve compression. For example, carpal tunnel syndrome, ulnar nerve entrapment, and cubital tunnel syndrome are types of peripheral nerve compression.

What Are the Symptoms of a Pinched Nerve?

When a nerve gets squeezed, it can lead to various symptoms, with pain often being the main one. But there can be other signs too. Here are the common signs of a pinched nerve, made easy to understand:

  1. Pain where the nerve is pinched, like in the neck or lower back.
  2. Pain that spreads, like sciatica (down the leg) or radiating pain (down the arm).
  3. Numbness or tingling feelings.
  4. “Pins and needles” or a burning sensation.
  5. Weakness, especially during certain activities.
  6. A sensation of your foot or hand “falling asleep.”

Sometimes, these symptoms get worse when you move your head or strain your neck. It’s important to get early diagnosis and treatment to prevent further problems, especially since pinched nerves are a common cause of workplace injuries.

How is a Pinched Nerve Diagnosed?

Diagnosing a pinched nerve involves several steps to find out what’s going on. Here’s the process:

  1. Symptoms Check: First, your doctor will talk to you about your symptoms and give you a physical exam. This helps them understand what’s happening.

  2. Lab Tests: If they suspect a pinched nerve, they might suggest some tests:

    • Blood Tests: These check for conditions like diabetes or thyroid issues that can affect your nerves.

    • Spinal Tap (Lumbar Puncture): This test collects fluid from around your spinal cord to check for signs of inflammation or infection.

  3. Imaging Tests: To get a better look at the problem area, different imaging methods are used:

    • X-rays: These show your bones and can reveal if something is pressing on a nerve.

    • Nerve Conduction Study: This test measures how your nerves work and if there’s any damage.

    • Electromyography (EMG): It checks the electrical activity in your muscles to spot nerve-related issues.

    • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): MRI scans give detailed pictures of your body and are great for finding nerve compression.

    • High-Resolution Ultrasound: This uses sound waves to create images and is helpful for conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome.

By using these methods together, doctors can figure out if you have a pinched nerve and make a plan to treat it and deal with the root cause of the problem.

How Is a Pinched Nerve Treated?

Treatment for a pinched nerve usually begins with non-surgical methods. Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Time and Rest: Often, your body can heal on its own with some time and rest. The pain may go away naturally in a few days or weeks.

  2. Ice and Heat: You can use ice and heat to temporarily reduce pain, similar to treating a swollen area.

  3. Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers: Medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help relieve your symptoms.

  4. Splints and Collars: For wrist, hand, or neck nerve issues, your healthcare provider might suggest using a soft splint or collar to limit movement and aid in healing.

  5. Corticosteroids: In some cases, your healthcare provider may prescribe strong anti-inflammatory drugs like prednisone to reduce pain and inflammation.

  6. Physical Therapy: Gentle stretching and exercises can help relieve nerve pressure and minor pain. Consult your healthcare provider or physical therapist for the right exercises.

If these non-surgical treatments don’t work, surgery may be considered as a last option. Surgical procedures for pinched nerves include:

  1. Anterior Cervical Diskectomy and Fusion (ACDF): Removal of disks or bone spurs in the spine, followed by fusing vertebrae for stability.

  2. Artificial Disk Replacement (ADR): Replacing a damaged disk with an artificial one to improve spine flexibility.

  3. Posterior Cervical Laminoforaminotomy: Thinning down the bony arch at the back of the spinal canal to access the affected area and remove bone spurs.

For carpal tunnel syndrome, two surgical options are available:

  1. Open Surgery: Making a single incision in the wrist to cut the ligament around the carpal tunnel and relieve pressure on the median nerve.

  2. Endoscopic Surgery: A minimally invasive approach with small incisions and a tiny camera to guide the procedure. The surgeon cuts the ligament to create more space for the nerve.

After these surgeries, recovery times vary. Most people can return to desk jobs within days to weeks, but full recovery may take several months. Carpal tunnel surgery recovery typically takes around 10 to 12 weeks, with limited activities resuming shortly after the procedure, such as driving. Your surgeon will provide a recovery timeline, and some individuals may need more time.

How Do I Prevent a Pinched Nerve?

To avoid getting a pinched nerve, follow these simple steps:

  1. Mind Your Posture: Maintain good posture and avoid leaning on your elbows. Also, try not to cross your legs too often.

  2. Reduce Repetitive Movements: Don’t do repetitive activities too frequently, as they can put pressure on your nerves.

  3. Ergonomics at Work and Home: Make sure your workspace and home setup follow ergonomic principles. This can help lower the chances of nerve injuries.

  4. Take Regular Breaks: If you have to do repetitive tasks, take regular breaks to rest and reduce the risk of nerve injury.

  5. Exercise: Include stretching and strengthening exercises for the muscles around the affected area. This provides better support and lowers the risk of pinched nerves.

If you need more guidance, you may make an appointment with our online pain management consultation

Frequently Asked Questions About Pinched Nerves

1. How to relieve a pinched nerve?

To ease the discomfort of a pinched nerve, try these methods:

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Use over-the-counter pain relief medications.
  • Do gentle stretching exercises.
  • Consider getting a massage.

2. Do pinched nerves go away on their own?

In most cases, pinched nerves usually get better on their own with some rest. About 85% of neck pinched nerves improve within 8-12 weeks without specific treatment. However, you can try anti-inflammatory drugs and physical therapy to reduce inflammation.

3. How long does it take for a pinched nerve to heal?

The healing time for a pinched nerve varies. It could be a few days to as long as 4 weeks or more. If symptoms persist, consult your doctor.

4. Can a chiropractor help with a pinched nerve?

Chiropractors may provide relief for pinched nerves. They specialize in treating bone, nerve, muscle, and ligament-related conditions. A 2021 case study found that chiropractic care relieved neck pinched nerve symptoms completely over 3 months, and this relief lasted for 4 years. However, some research suggests caution, as direct chiropractic manipulation could worsen symptoms.

5. Can a pinched nerve lead to serious problems?

Yes, a pinched nerve can potentially lead to chronic pain or permanent nerve damage. Prolonged pressure, inflammation, and swelling can cause irreversible damage. If symptoms worsen or don’t improve after several days, contact your healthcare provider for evaluation and guidance.

Need professional help to relieve chronic pain? Book an online consultation with physical therapist Dr. Olivia Patel.

Leave a Comment

Pain Relief Consultation With Dr. Olivia Patel

I'm Dr. Olivia Patel, a physical therapist specializing in helping people with neck, back, and knee pain. Instead of resorting to invasive treatments or surgeries, I use natural and non-invasive remedies to help my clients alleviate their agonizing pain and regain the joy of living a pain-free life. If you're interested in learning about my approach, click the button below to schedule a call with me.