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Pinched nerve overview

A pinched nerve is a nerve in the body that has been compressed, usually due to injury or muscle strain.

Many people experience pinched nerves throughout their lives. The most common instance of a pinched nerve is experienced when a body part (like a hand or foot) falls asleep after being held in one position for too long. In this case, the nerve that signals the hand or foot has been pinched and has interrupted sensory signals to that extremity.

For many people, pinched nerves develop in the spine — typically in the neck or lower back — due to a degenerative spine condition. These pinched nerves are the cause of neck and back pain and sometimes pain in the arms or legs.

Though a single pinched nerve is small compared to the rest of the body, it can have a large impact on your overall quality of life. A pinched nerve can make certain movements painful and even prevent you from enjoying your hobbies or completing your household chores. Once your doctor diagnoses the cause of your pinched nerve, you can begin treatment to find pain relief and return to your normal quality of life.

Causes of a pinched nerve in the spine

A pinched nerve in the spine is often caused by a spine condition that has developed due to age or injury. Most spine conditions cause a component of the spine to move out of normal alignment, protruding into the spinal canal. Because the spinal canal contains many nerve roots, a spinal component that moves into the spinal canal can increase the risk of a nerve becoming pinched or compressed.

For example, a herniated disc is a common cause of a pinched nerve in the spine. When a spinal disc herniates, the outer layer of the disc tears and allows the disc’s nucleus to protrude into the spinal canal. The disc’s nucleus, along with any torn disc fragments, enters the spinal canal and can potentially cause a pinched nerve.

Another common cause of a pinched nerve in the spine is stenosis. Stenosis means narrowing, and it can occur in the spinal canal as well as the foraminal canal. Though located in different areas of the spine, these two types of canals allow nerves to move and pass through. When a bulging disc or bone spur presses into the empty space within a canal and causes it to narrow, a traveling nerve can become trapped.

While many pinched nerves are caused by spine conditions, not all spine conditions lead to pinched nerves. Typically, patients can tell if a nerve is pinched by the onset — whether gradual or sudden — of pinched nerve symptoms.

Symptoms of a pinched nerve

A pinched nerve can have many symptoms depending on the severity and location of the nerve. These symptoms can stay local to the site of the pinched nerve or travel along the nerve’s pathway into other areas of the body.

Common symptoms of a pinched nerve include:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Burning sensation

When pinched nerve symptoms develop at the location of the nerve, they are called local symptoms. When these symptoms travel the length of the nerve pathway, they are considered radiating symptoms. Depending on the location of the pinched nerve within the spine, the symptoms could affect different areas of the body. For example, a cervical pinched nerve (neck) could affect the head, shoulder, arm and hand, while a lumbar pinched nerve (lower back) could affect the buttock, leg and foot.

If you begin to experience these symptoms, and common home remedies like rest and hot/cold compresses do not relieve your pain, you should schedule a doctor’s appointment to diagnose the cause of your pain.

Diagnosing a pinched nerve

Diagnosing a pinched nerve is not necessarily difficult. The symptoms are often the same for many patients, and pinched nerves are so common that it is usually easy for a doctor to diagnose.

However, the purpose of diagnosing a pinched nerve is to diagnose the cause of your pain. Once your doctor determines what is pinching the nerve near your spine, he or she can recommend the appropriate treatment options for pain relief.

A diagnosis will often consist of a series of questions about your symptoms, medical history and current lifestyle. This will help your doctor determine what might have caused your condition and what preventative steps can be made in the future. Afterward, your doctor may perform a physical evaluation by pressing on areas of the spine to locate the source of your pain.

In many cases, your doctor will order an MRI or CT scan to gain an accurate view of your spine and diagnose the cause of your pinched nerve. Once this is complete, you can begin a series of treatments for pain relief.

Pinched nerve treatment

Many pinched nerves can be treated through conservative methods of pain relief, such as pain medication, physical or massage therapy, weight loss, stretches and/or corticosteroid injections, to name a few options.

However, not all pinched nerve cases respond to conservative treatment. Some may require spine surgery. At Laser Spine Institute, we offer a minimally invasive alternative to traditional open neck and back surgery, allowing patients to find treatment for a pinched nerve with a lower risk of complication.

Find out if you’re a candidate for our minimally invasive procedures today through a no-cost MRI review* from our team and let us help you take the next step toward pain relief.