Pinched Nerve Symptoms in the Neck or Back

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A pinched nerve is a non-medical term that refers to pressure put on a nerve by soft tissue, bone, or a herniated disc. Long nerves that come off the main spinal cord to travel through the body can be affected. These are known as peripheral nerves. They act as messengers in sending information from your brain and spinal cord to every other part of your body.

They can also be part of the central nervous system. A herniated disc that puts pressure on the spinal canal is the most common example of a pinched nerve. It often occurs after an injury or after bending, lifting, pulling, or twisting.

This article explains the different names for pinched nerves as well as the causes, symptoms, and treatment options.

Risk Can Escalate

Some people are more likely to get a pinched nerve than others. This group includes pregnant people, those whose jobs include repetitive motion, and people who have been injured.

Names and Causes

The medical name for a pinched nerve is “cervical radiculopathy." In addition to a herniated disc, a nerve may become pinched as the discs in the spine age. As they do, they shorten and begin to bulge.

As the discs become shorter, the vertebrae move closer together. The disc responds by forming more bone. These are called bone spurs, which are meant to strengthen the disc. But they can also stiffen the spine and pinch the nerve root, which can be as painful as it sounds.

Pinched nerves are most likely to strike in certain parts of the body, including the arm/elbow, back, neck, shoulder, upper chest, or wrist/hand.

A pinched nerve has several names, some officially medical and others not. These include nerve compression, nerve impingement, and nerve entrapment. It can also be called nerve encroachment, radiculopathy and/or sciatica. These names don’t all mean the same thing, and each is medically correct in certain ways. For example:

  • Nerve impingement or nerve entrapment occurs when a single nerve is compressed in the peripheral nervous system.
  • Nerve root encroachment happens when the space where nerves pass through is crowded. This crowding may be caused by spinal stenosis or a herniated disc.
  • Spinal stenosis is when the bony openings in the spine start to narrow so there is less space for nerves.

Pinched nerve symptoms can also come from injury, repetitive movement, and arthritis. Long-term, poor posture habits also add to pinched nerve problems.

Pinched Nerve Symptoms

Symptoms of a pinched neck nerve
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

Symptoms of a pinched nerve include pain and/or electrical sensations. They may also include weakness, numbness, dull ache, or a pins and needles feeling. The symptoms depend on the cause and location, with pain radiating from the affected area.

There is one common, but mild, symptom of a pinched nerve in your neck: You may wake up with a stiff neck after sleeping in an awkward position. Meanwhile, a compressed or entrapped nerve may prevent you from functioning fully.

This is why you should see your healthcare provider or physical therapist soon after you notice symptoms. Also, pinched nerves can cause permanent damage if you go a long time without treatment or re-injure the area again.

Radiculopathy causes pain and nerve symptoms because a spinal nerve root touches something it shouldn't. These include a disc, bone spur, or other spinal structure.

Symptoms of radiculopathy go down either an arm or a leg. If you have a herniated disc in your neck, you'll feel the pain down one arm.

Sciatica describes pain and electrical sensations that go down the leg. Sciatica is used by many people to describe similar conditions, including radiculopathy.

The good news is that if you move fast to get treatment for a pinched nerve, the symptoms should go away swiftly. And your function will likely improve quickly, too.

Respond Fast to Symptoms

It's crucial to see your healthcare provider right away if you experience symptoms of a pinched nerve. Early treatment is the best way to get the nerve to function properly again.

Treatment for Pinched Nerve

Pinched nerves usually get better without surgery. Some don't require any treatment at all.

Common treatments often start with the most conservative first. Then they become progressively more aggressive, if necessary. The treatments may include:

  • Rest, with breaks to stretch, change positions, and move around
  • Ice or a cold pack or a warm washcloth or heating pad for 10- to 20-minute intervals
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve)
  • A cervical pillow while you sleep
  • Physical therapy
  • Range-of-motion and strengthening exercises
  • Surgery, in severe cases

A stronger medication, such as an oral corticosteroid (Prednisone), or antidepressant medications can be especially good at reducing nerve pain. Some common choices include gabapentin, amitriptyline, and duloxetine.

The good news is that the symptoms of a pinched nerve often go away in time—or in about four to six weeks. This good outcome is most likely to occur when a patient follows the advice of their healthcare provider.

And still, other treatments may join the mainstream. One is called neural mobilization, or neurodynamics. This movement-based therapy helps bring the nerves back to the right position with the structures around them. In the process, pain and other symptoms gradually fade.

A September 2017 review found that neural mobilization decreased low back pain and disability. It also increased functioning in people with chronic low back pain.

Prevention

Even the smallest movement in the wrong direction can set off a pinched nerve. So while you may not be able to avoid one entirely, you can take certain steps to reduce your risk. Consider:

  • Maintaining good posture
  • Lifting heavy objects properly (by using your legs, not your back, and lifting slowly)
  • Placing your computer keyboard in a comfortable position (so that it sits just above the level of your lap)
  • Taking regular breaks to walk around if you sit for long periods of time
  • Staying physically fit

Summary

Pinched nerves can be very painful, depending on the type and location in the body. Feelings of weakness, numbness, aches, and electrical sensations might mean a nerve is irritated. If the pain goes down one arm or leg, it will help to show your healthcare provider where the pain started. Treatment may include medication, injections, exercise, or physical therapy to help restore full function.

A Word From Verywell

A pinched nerve hurts, but this news bulletin won't: Surgery is usually not considered a treatment option for a pinched nerve unless the pain continues after eight weeks of therapy, a patient still has difficulty moving, or there are signs of spinal cord compression.

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12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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