Possible Causes of Neck Neuropathy and Neuropathic Pain

Generally, neck and back pain is benign. That is, it's neither serious nor caused by a specific disease or condition. In these cases, muscles and other soft tissue tend to be at the root of the pain. When it is serious, causes may include bone fracture, infection, tumor, cauda equina syndrome, herniated disc, or spinal stenosis.

The last four of these, tumor, cauda equina syndrome, herniated disc, and spinal stenosis, involve pressure on nerves, nerve roots and/or the spinal cord. The pain that results can become neuropathic pain.

Mature man holding his shoulder
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What Is Neuropathic Pain?

Neuropathic pain occurs when nerve fibers become damaged, traumatized and/or otherwise dysfunctional.

To best understand neuropathic pain, let's talk briefly about what nerves do. Their job is to relay messages to and from the brain and spinal cord about what's going on. Nerves are found in tissues, organs, muscles and more.

If you burn your hand on a hot stove, for example, your nerves go right to work communicating this input to the brain and spinal cord. Nerves also carry response signals from the brain, delivering these back to those body tissues that were involved in the inciting incident, in this case, your hand. The response signals show up as pain and impulses to move. They will likely prompt you to take your hand away from the stove burner or to run it under cold water to decrease the pain.

This pain felt from this example of the normal workings of nerves is not neuropathic pain, but nociceptive pain. Nociceptive pain refers to pain related to actual tissue damage. In the hot stove example, it's your skin, and not your nerves, that experiences the nociceptive pain.

With neuropathic pain, the signals sent to you by the damaged fibers may sometimes "go haywire." They may seem like they don't make sense. The reason is, over time, these nerves may become active for no reason. That is, they "fire" but it's not in response to changes that are going on in the tissues, organs or muscles they serve.

Peripheral Nerve Damage From Your Cervical or Lumbar Spine

Although over 100 types of neuropathic pain exist, only a few of these are spine-related. Generally, cervical or lumbar related neuropathic pain occurs when a spinal nerve root is pressured by an abnormality in a nearby structure. In this case, yes, you may experience back or neck pain, but you'll also likely experience symptoms that go down one leg or arm.

Many people call the pain that goes down one leg sciatica, but the real name for this condition, whether in the leg or the arm, is radiculopathy.

The spinal nerve root is a collection of nerves that branch off the spinal cord, and then branch off into individual peripheral nerves that go out to all areas of the body. Spinal nerve roots are present on either side of the spine, at every level, from cervical to lumbar.

With lumbar radiculopathy, which is a disease of one or more spinal nerve roots, people may experience sciatica, i.e, radiating hip, buttock, and/or leg pain.

The sciatic nerve is a peripheral nerve, the largest in the body. Ironically, irritation of the sciatic nerve itself is thought to be a rare cause of sciatica symptoms. This can happen when a tight piriformis muscle impinges on the nerve. By the way, the term sciatica does not apply to radicular pain or other symptoms that are experienced in the arm.

A common type of neuropathy that affects the neck and the peripheral nerves that branch out from that part of the spine is cervical radiculopathy. Cervical radiculopathy is often caused by a herniated disc in the neck.

Lumbar and Cervical Peripheral Nerve Damage Symptoms

Symptoms of neuropathic pain can be very severe. They can feel like pins and needles, electrical shock, and/or burning that travel down one extremity. Other symptoms include numbness, weakness or altered sensation anywhere along the path the nerve travels.

In the case of cauda equina syndrome, symptoms may get progressively worse and also include bowel or bladder dysfunction and saddle amnesia, which is a loss of feeling in the seat area.

If you have these symptoms, it's best to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Cauda equina syndrome is considered a medical emergency.

7 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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By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.