Your spine is a complex system, made of bones and disks that protect your spinal cord. This cord is the home of many nerves, which branch off and run through different parts of your body. These nerves control much of what the body does, from walking and talking to breathing and swallowing, and it also alerts the brain when the body is in pain.
But sometimes, the tissue surrounding a nerve – the bones, cartilage, or muscles – put too much pressure on the nerve itself. This can disrupt the nerve’s regular function, and instead cause it to send pain signals to the brain. The result is a compressed nerve – better known by its common name, a “pinched nerve.”
Causes of Pinched Nerves
As we just mentioned, the root cause of a pinched nerve is when surrounding tissues put pressure on a nerve in the body (most commonly in the lower back or neck). However, this pressure can occur because of many other situations, including:
- A slipped disk
- Trauma (such as a sports injury or car accident)
- Strain from repetitive motion tasks
- Aging (regular “wear and tear” on the spine)
There are also other physical conditions that can contribute to pinched nerves. For example, obese individuals can suffer pinched nerves due to excess weight putting pressure on neural pathways. Similarly, extra weight from pregnancy can compress nerves and cause pain. Individuals with diabetes are also as a higher risk for pinched nerves, as high blood sugar can damage the nerves.
With all this in mind, it is important to remember that pinched nerves are rather common. About 85 in 100,000 Americans suffer pinched nerves each year, and in most cases the pain is quite minor and fades in a matter of days. If you suffer a pinched nerve, there’s no need to panic; you simply need to examine your symptoms.
Symptoms of Pinched Nerves
You can experience a pinched nerve anywhere in the body, but most individuals get pinched nerves in their lower back or in their neck. The symptoms in these two areas vary, but there are some common symptoms that affect pinched nerves in any area. These include:
- Sharp, aching pain that radiates outward
- Eventual numbness in the area (caused by decreased sensation in the nerve)
- Tingling feeling in the area
- Muscle weakness
Individuals with a pinched nerve in the lower back may also experience pain in the leg or foot, which can become more painful if the person sits, coughs, or makes any other sudden movements. Individuals who have a pinched nerve in their neck may experience pain in their shoulders that worsens when they try to turn their head. This pain may feel debilitating at the time, but in most cases, it is only indicative of a minor injury that will heal in a few days.
Diagnosing a Pinched Nerve
If you feel like your pinched nerve isn’t healing on its own, you’ll have to visit your healthcare provider to see if there is a greater problem. Your provider will give you a physical exam to look for muscle weakness, test your reflexes, and ask you about how the injury occurred and your daily habits.
Most often, he or she will offer advice for at-home care. However, if your pinched nerve indicates a larger health problem, you doctor may recommend some imaging tests like the following:
- X-ray (to check for narrowing in the spinal cord)
- CT Scan (to view the spinal cord in greater detail)
- MRI (to check for damage in the soft tissue around the pinched nerve)
- EMG (to determine if the nerve is working normally)
Treating a Pinched Nerve
For most individuals, a pinched nerve is not a major cause for concern. While it can be extremely uncomfortable, this injury is not life-threatening and can be treated at home with simple remedies.
For example, techniques that relax the muscles (a hot shower, heating pads or ice packs, massage, etc.) can be incredibly effective when treating a pinched nerve. Over-the-counter pain relievers can also help mitigate the discomfort of a pinched nerve.
Sometimes, the best way to treat a pinched nerve is with exercise. This may seem counterintuitive (when someone is in pain, they rarely want to work out), but stretching out the muscles around the pinched nerve can release some of the pressure and bring relief. Try stretching or doing some yoga – but if the pain gets worse, stop immediately.
Finally, the best way to treat a pinched nerve is with preventative behaviors. Focus on improving your posture in daily life. Design a more ergonomic workstation to keep pressure off your spine at the office. If you’re overweight, consider making some lifestyle changes (for example, adding a low-impact exercise to your routine) to reduce inflammation near the nerves. These steps can help you prevent pinched nerves and keep your body healthy.
When You Need Hospitalization
There are a few cases in which a pinched nerve requires hospitalization. The most common of these cases is a herniated disk, which may require a discectomy (surgical removal of all or part of a disk that is pressing on a nerve). This is a relatively low-risk procedure, which fully heals in six to eight weeks.
However, there are a few other instances in which a pinched nerve needs immediate medical care. Visit the emergency room right away if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Sudden onset of severe pain
- Paralysis of an arm or leg
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Loss of sensation around the genitals or anal region
If left untreated (either at home or by a medical professional), a pinched nerve will continue to worsen and become more painful. In fact, if a nerve is put under pressure for a prolonged period, it can become permanently damaged. This will contribute to chronic pain in the individual.
Luckily, nerve damage from a pinched nerve is uncommon. If an individual takes care of their injury with rest, light stretching and exercise, and lifestyle changes to protect their body, the pain of a pinched nerve will subside and they can resume their everyday activities.