What Is a Pinched Nerve?
A pinched nerve develops when soft tissues (including muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones or cartilage) apply too much pressure to a nerve. The resulting compression, inflammation and irritation affect the nerve’s ability to function properly. Nerve compression commonly occurs in the low back and neck, where nerve roots branch off the spinal cord. Compression can also occur in the nerves that run through your arms and legs. Your nerves are responsible for motor functions, pain signals and sensations throughout your body. A pinched or irritated nerve can cause significant pain and weakness.
Causes and Risk Factors
The cervical and lumbar spine are two of the most common areas for pinched nerves. A bulging or herniated spinal disc can compress and irritate nearby nerve roots as they exit the spine. Spinal osteoarthritis may cause bony overgrowths called bone spurs to develop in the spinal canal and press against nearby nerves. Degenerative changes in the spine can cause ligaments to thicken, spinal discs to shift and flatten, and vertebrae to move closer together, all of which may affect nearby spinal nerves. Age is the primary risk factor for developing degenerative spinal changes that lead to a pinched nerve in the back or neck.
Other causes and risk factors include:
- Traumatic injury. Car accidents, falls and sports collisions can cause a direct injury to a nerve. Additionally, lifting a heavy object, or lifting and twisting at the same time, can cause a spinal disc to herniate and compress a nearby nerve.
- Repetitive motions. Repetitive motions that place chronic stress on muscles, tendons and ligaments cause local inflammation or injury that affects nearby nerves. Repetitive typing can stress the wrist and injure the median nerve, leading to carpal tunnel syndrome. Playing sports with repetitive motions (tennis, baseball, rowing) and physically demanding jobs with repetitive lifting (construction, nursing, warehouse labor) can also cause soft tissue damage that affects nearby nerves in the neck, back, arms and legs.
- Rheumatoid arthritis. Inflammation from rheumatoid arthritis can cause nerve compression, especially around affected joints.
- Obesity. Excess body weight places increased stress on the entire musculoskeletal system, increasing the risk of developing inflammation, injuries, herniated discs and arthritis that can lead to nerve compression.
- Pregnancy. Weight changes and water retention during pregnancy can cause swelling that increases the risk of nerve compression.
- Body positioning. Poor body positioning — like leaning on the elbows, sitting with crossed legs, poor posture and sitting or lying sedentary in one position — increases the risk of developing a pressure-related nerve injury.
You’ll feel symptoms of a pinched nerve in the area of the body that the nerve supplies movement and sensations to. For example, nerve compression in the lumbar spine usually causes symptoms in the back, buttock, leg, and foot. Nerve compression in the neck usually causes symptoms in the neck, shoulder, arm, hand and fingers.
You may experience the following signs and symptoms in the affected area:
- Numbness or decreased sensation
- Tingling, pins and needles or “falling asleep” sensation
- A sharp, burning or radiating pain
It’s common for nerve compression in the lumbar spine to affect the sciatic nerve, leading to sciatic pain and symptoms. Sciatica is characterized by an aching, sharp, burning or electrical pain that radiates down one side of the body from the low back to the buttock, thigh, calf and foot.
Treatment and Prevention
A pinched nerve usually resolves within a few weeks with non-surgical treatment. Your doctor may prescribe a combination of the following:
- Rest. Rest the injured area and avoid activities that aggravate or irritate the compressed nerve.
- Ice and heat. Apply ice packs for 20 minutes several times a day to reduce pain, inflammation and swelling. After the first few days, apply heat packs to the injured area to relieve pain and soothe tight, tense muscles that may be irritating the nerve. You can alternate between ice and heat, or use whichever method is more effective for you.
- Medications. Over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen or NSAIDs can help reduce pain and inflammation. If you have risk factors for bleeding, talk to your doctor before taking NSAIDs.
- Corticosteroids. Oral corticosteroids or a cortisone injection directly into the injured area can reduce pain, inflammation and irritation around the compressed nerve root.
- Physical therapy. A physical therapist can work with you on exercises and stretches that relieve pressure on the affected nerve. Additionally, your therapist can help you with good posture and proper body positioning that will help prevent future nerve injuries.
Call your doctor if symptoms persist despite at-home care and treatments. Left untreated, a pinched nerve can cause chronic pain or permanent nerve damage. Surgery may be an option if your symptoms don’t resolve within a few weeks.
Sometimes surgery is required to relieve pressure on a compressed nerve and open up more space for nerves to move freely. If you have a pinched nerve in the back or neck, you may need surgery to remove a bone spur or herniated disc that’s pressing on the nerve and causing pain. Your doctor will recommend the type of surgery you need based on the location of the pinched nerve and what’s causing your pain.
Contact Integrity Spine and Orthopedics to Learn More About the Conditions We Treat
At Integrity Spine and Orthopedics, we specialize in identifying, diagnosing and treating a wide range of acute and chronic back, spine and joint conditions. Our board-certified orthopedic surgeons specialize in performing minimally invasive spine surgeries to reduce pain and improve mobility for patients diagnosed with spinal arthritis, degenerative disc disease, bulging or herniated discs, a pinched nerve, spinal stenosis and more.
Some of the primary benefits of minimally invasive surgery include:
- Smaller incisions
- Fewer complications and bloss loss during surgery
- Less damage to surrounding muscle and soft tissues
- Lower risk of infection
- Less post-op pain and less reliance on strong pain medications during recovery
- Faster recovery and rehabilitation
- Better cosmetic results with minimal scarring
If you’re experiencing back or joint pain, weakness, or a loss of mobility, reach out to us today to schedule a consultation with our team. We provide compassionate and comprehensive care to help you find relief from pain and get back to doing the activities you love.
Call us at 904-456-0017 or contact us online to request an appointment.