An Overview of Pinched Nerves

You may develop a pinched nerve due to pressure or compression on one or more of your nerves. The symptoms can include pain, tingling, numbness, sensory loss, and weakness.

Pinched nerves are very common. They typically involve spinal nerves or may affect peripheral nerves in the limbs (arms and legs). Arthritis and trauma are among the leading causes of pinched nerves, and there are a variety of other causes as well.

Often, treatment with anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy can relieve the effects of a pinched nerve. Surgical intervention is rarely needed, and while pinched nerves do not typically cause permanent nerve dysfunction (weakness or sensory loss), these consequences can occur.

Symptoms

Each nerve in the body is dedicated to detecting sensation in specific regions of the skin or internal organs and/or stimulating certain muscles. The symptoms of a pinched nerve correspond with the sensory and motor function that is normally supplied by the compressed nerve.

A pinched nerve generally affects only one side of the body, and its effects can range from mild to severe. You can, however, have more than one pinched nerve, which would cause symptoms in several locations (corresponding to each nerve).

Common symptoms of a pinched nerve include:

  • A burning sensation
  • Tingling sensations that feel like pins and needles or electric shocks
  • Pain, which typically radiates away from the pinched nerve
  • Pain in a seemingly unrelated location—such as in your elbow or arm due to a pinched nerve in your neck
  • An area of numbness on the skin
  • The feeling of your hand or foot falling asleep
  • Diminished sensation to pain, temperature, or touch on an area of the skin
  • Weakness of the affected muscle or muscles

A pinched nerve can produce a combination of these symptoms, such as numbness and weakness, or burning and tingling. The symptoms of a pinched nerve usually come on gradually and may frequently fluctuate. The intensity of your symptoms often varies with your physical position.

Most nerves detect sensation of an area on the skin and may control muscle movement of a nearby (but slightly different) area—so keep in mind that your weakness and sensory changes might not match up perfectly on one area of your body.

Impaired Physical Functions

Sometimes, a pinched nerve can affect specific physical functions. This is usually associated with pinched nerves of the lower spine. Physical functions that can be affected by a pinched nerve include:

  • Loss of bladder control
  • Bowel incontinence
  • Sexual dysfunction

A pinched nerve is usually uncomfortable, but it can cause permanent sensory damage or weakness if the nerve is severely compressed or under pressure for too long. Be sure to get medical attention if you develop any of the symptoms of a pinched nerve.

Causes

Compression and pressure on a nerve can be caused by a wide variety of medical conditions or injuries.

Inflammation is a common cause of a pinched nerve because the swelling that occurs with inflammation can crowd the area around a nerve, impinging on the nerve. Trauma can disrupt the structures around a nerve (bones, cartilage, and soft tissue), causing physical pressure and inflammation. And overuse commonly causes trauma and inflammation, resulting in nerve compression.

Risk Factors

Certain medical conditions increase the risk of developing a pinched nerve. Inflammatory diseases such as arthritis produce swelling around the nerve and can cause one or more pinched nerves. Thyroid disease can lead to swelling throughout the body, including regions that surround a nerve.

Weight changes, especially weight gain, can alter your balance, potentially placing substantial pressure on nerves of the lower back.

Common causes and risk factors of a pinched nerve include:

Nerve Passages

Your nerves can become compressed when the passages through which they travel become inflamed or compressed due to trauma or disease.

Your spinal nerves pass from your spinal cord through small holes called intervertebral foramen before reaching their destination in your extremities. These foramina are located in your vertebrae, which are the bones of your spine. The narrow passage of the spinal foramen is a common location for nerve compression. When a spinal nerve is compressed as it leaves the foramen, the condition is called radiculopathy.

Bony nerve passageways throughout your body can also become inflamed, placing pressure on a nerve. For example, carpal tunnel syndrome, ulnar nerve entrapment, and cubital tunnel syndrome are all examples of peripheral nerve compression.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of a pinched nerve begins with a careful history and physical exam. Your doctor will ask you about your medical history, your physical activity, and any injuries you may have had.

Your physical examination will include an assessment of your sensation, reflexes, and motor strength. A pinched nerve in the spine can cause sensory changes that correspond to the nerve dermatome and muscle weakness or reflex changes that correspond to the nerve's myotome.

Diagnostic Tests

A number of tests can help verify the location of a pinched nerve, assess the extent of nerve damage, and determine whether there are structural problems that need to be addressed.

Electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction study (NCV) are tests that evaluate the function of a nerve by placing needles and electric shocks on the extremities. These tests are mildly uncomfortable, but they aren't painful and they only take a few minutes. EMG and NCV can help your medical team determine whether you have nerve damage and help define the severity of the damage.

Imaging studies, such as an X-ray or a spine magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test can be helpful in evaluating bone fractures, joint injuries, or tumors—all of which can cause a pinched nerve.

Locations of a Pinched Nerve

Some nerves are susceptible to compression due to their location. Certain repetitive actions or medical conditions also predispose to a pinched nerve in certain locations.

Your doctor will likely recognize a pattern of sensory changes, pain, or weakness corresponding to these nerves,

Nerves that are prone to compression include:

Cervical nerves: Compression of the nerves that come from your cervical spine (upper spine) often leads to pain and weakness in the arm and/or headaches.

Sciatic nerve: The sciatic nerve is a large nerve formed by spinal nerves of your lumbosacral spine (lower spine). Leg pain, weakness, and bowel and bladder dysfunction can result from compression of this nerve, a condition described as sciatica.

Median nerve: This nerve runs along the mid-region of your arm and wrist and relays sensation of your hand. Compression of the median nerve at the wrist may result in carpal tunnel syndrome.

Ulnar nerve: The ulnar nerve runs down the lateral (outer) side of your arm past your elbow and relays sensation over the lateral part of your arm. The ulnar nerve is what you've likely felt when you hit your "funny bone" in your elbow.

Radial nerve: The radial nerve runs down the medial side (towards your thumb) of your arm and hand. Compression often causes pain on the medial side of your hand or arm.

Femoral nerve: The femoral nerve extends from your hip to your knee and causes pain in this region when pinched.

Lateral femoral cutaneous nerve: Compression of the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve (meralgia paresthetica) causes pain along the front and outside of the thigh and may be caused by wearing a tight belt, pregnancy, or weight gain.

Plantar nerves: Your plantar nerves are located in your feet and often cause a pins and needles sensation in your feet if compressed.

Tibial nerve: The tibial nerve runs along your tibia (the largest bone in your lower leg) past your knee and down towards your ankle (past the knee and lower leg.) Compression can cause pain anywhere along its path.

Peroneal nerve: The peroneal nerve runs along the side of your leg and may result in foot drop if damaged (such as after a hip replacement.)

Differential Diagnosis

The term "pinched nerve" is often casually used as a catch-all phrase for muscle pain, neck pain, or pain of an arm or leg. An injury resulting from compression, constriction, or stretching of a nerve may not always be defined as a pinched nerve.

Other conditions that can be confused with a pinched nerve include:

Your physical examination and diagnostic tests can help your medical team differentiate a pinched nerve from these other conditions, which helps in directing your treatment plan.

Treatment

The treatment of a pinched nerve is focused on reducing the effects and preventing it from worsening. There are several treatment strategies, and you will probably need to use a few of them to get the best effect.

Treatment options for a pinched nerve include:

Rest: Avoiding the movements that exacerbate your pinched nerve is usually recommended. For example, for a repetitive motion based injury such as carpal tunnel syndrome, a mild case can be relieved by resting your hand and arm.

Weight loss: If weight gain is the cause of your pinched nerve, losing weight may alleviate the symptoms. A pregnancy-associated pinched nerve is often relieved after delivery.

Pain medication: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) medications such as Advil (ibuprofen) are often used for the management of inflammatory pain.

Physical therapy: Exercises and learning optimal ways to move (which can prevent repetitive motion injuries) are often used as an initial treatment along with pain management to help reduce the effects of a pinched nerve.

Corticosteroids: Steroids may be used orally (by mouth) or by injection to reduce inflammation around a compressed nerve.

Medical devices/splints: Splints may be used to reduce motion and decrease inflammation around the nerve. This can be an especially effective treatment for ulnar nerve compression.

Traction: Cervical traction may be used for a pinched cervical nerve to open up space where the nerves exit the spinal cord.

Alternative/complementary treatments: Therapies such as acupuncture or massage therapy may be helpful for some people in controlling the pain associated with a pinched nerve. A TENS unit may also help reduce pain. These therapies are used primarily to reduce pain and do not appear to have a significant role in reducing nerve compression on their own.

Surgery: Surgery may be needed either to remove scar tissue, which exacerbates nerve compression. Surgery can also alleviate the source of nerve compression, such as a herniated disc, a bone fracture, or a tumor.

Often, the effects of a pinched nerve worsen with time, but sometimes they can improve if the cause (inflammation or weight gain for example) is alleviated.

A Word From Verywell

Early diagnosis and treatment are important strategies for reducing the harm from a pinched nerve. If you notice symptoms of a pinched nerve, it is important to get medical attention so your doctor can identify any concerning causes sooner rather than later.

Rarely, a pinched nerve can lead to permanent damage or other complications. In general, treatment for a pinched nerve is effective, but prolonging the situation often makes a pinched nerve more difficult to treat and can lead to long term damage.

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Article Sources

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