Pinched Nerve Symptoms in Neck or Back

What is a Pinched Nerve?

Pinched nerve is a non-medical term that refers in general to pressure put on a nerve by soft tissue, bone, or a herniated disc. Affected nerves can either be peripheral, in other words, long nerves that have branched off the main spinal cord to traverse (and serve) the body, or they can be a part of the central nervous system. A herniated disc that compresses the spinal canal is the most common (and perhaps the only) example of a pinched nerve that occurs in the central nervous system.

A Pinched Nerve by Any Other Name Is...

Pinched nerve goes by a number of names, some officially medical and others not. Along with the term nerve compression, pinched nerve may also be referred to as nerve impingement, nerve entrapment, nerve encroachment, radiculopathy and/or sciatica. Even though each of these terms relate to pinched nerve in some way, they don’t all mean the same thing. Not only that, but each has its own degree of accuracy in terms of medical diagnosis.

Nerve impingement, which is also referred to as nerve entrapment, occurs when one single nerve is directly compressed. This takes place in the peripheral nervous system, where, as mentioned above, the nerves have branched out from the spinal cord and then spinal nerve roots.

Nerve root encroachment refers to the crowding of spaces in and around the spinal column through which nerves pass. This crowding may be due to spinal stenosis, herniated disc or other condition. The term radiculopathy further describes what may happen where there's encroachment; it refers to the pain and nerve symptoms that are caused when a spinal nerve root comes into contact with a disc, bone spur, or other spinal structure that does not normally touch the nerve root.

By definition, symptoms of radiculopathy go down just one extremity; the location of the spinal nerve root compression determines if that extremity is an arm or a leg. For example, if you have a herniated disc in your neck, chances are you'll feel the pain, and/or experience symptoms, down one arm.

Sciatica is a non-medical term that describes a set of symptoms including leg pain and electrical sensations that go down your leg. Sciatica is used loosely by many people to refer to a number of similar conditions, including, erroneously, radiculopathy.

Pinched Nerve Symptoms

Symptoms of a pinched neck nerve
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

As you've probably guessed, symptoms of a pinched nerve include pain and/or electrical sensations. They may also include weakness, numbness, dull ache or pins and needles. The type and severity of symptoms may vary according to the specific cause, as well as the location.

And a common, but mild, symptom of a pinched nerve in your neck might be a crick you wake up with after a night in an awkward sleeping position.

The point is that a compressed or entrapped nerve may disturb your ability to function fully, and, of course, give you discomfort.

This is why seeing your doctor and/or physical therapist may be helpful when you notice symptoms. Something to keep in mind is the longer you leave pinched nerve symptoms unattended, the higher the risk for permanent damage may be.

The good news is that if you catch a pinched nerve early and are able to, through treatment, relieve the pressure, the nerve’s functioning will likely be restored.

Other things that may contribute to the onset or continuation of pinched nerve symptoms include injury, repetitive movement, arthritis and/or long term, poor posture habits.

Treatment for Pinched Nerve

Pinched nerves usually get better without surgery, and some don't require treatment at all.

Common treatments include pain medications, injections, exercise, wearing a collar in the case of a pinched nerve in the neck, and/or physical therapy. 

A new type of treatment that physical therapists uses is called neural mobilization or neurodynamics. Neurodynamics involves movements and/or manual maneuvers that help bring the nerves back into the right relationship with the structures that surround them, thereby relieving pain and reducing other symptoms.

A September 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy found that neural mobilization decreased low back pain and disability, and increased functioning in people with chronic low back pain.

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