Too much pressure is often a bad thing, and this truism also applies to the nerves surrounding our spinal cord. But this excess pressure, known as a pinched nerve, usually resolves before it pinches our ability to take part in our favorite activities, according to Praveen Kadimcherla, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Atlantic Spine Center.
Pinched nerves – a term loosely used to describe nerve compression – can happen in many locations throughout the body. But pinched nerves leading from the spine can cause myriad symptoms in the arms and legs, since they connect to nerves along the neck and back, says Dr. Kadimcherla, who is fellowship-trained in orthopedic and spine neurosurgery.
“A pinched nerve in the back often results in sciatica, which is pain that is felt in your buttocks and radiates down the leg,” he explains. “On the other hand, a pinched nerve in the neck can trigger radiating pain, numbness, tingling and weakness in the arms and hands.”
“Nerve damage and pain from pinched nerves can range from minor to severe, and short to long-lasting,” Dr. Kadimcherla adds. “But one thing is certain – it’s hard to ignore a pinched nerve.”
What causes a pinched nerve?
Pinched nerves don’t just occur out of nowhere – or do they? Actually, this highly common problem can be traced to many causes and risk factors, Dr. Kadimcherla notes. Pinched nerves can be caused by:
- Herniated or bulging discs in spinal vertebrae
- Spinal bone spurs
- Repetitive motion
- Holding your body in one position for long periods
- Poor posture
Factors that raise the odds that you’ll suffer from a pinched nerve include:
- Jobs that require repetitive movements
- Family history
“Clearly, many factors – both controllable and uncontrollable – can lead to pinched nerves,” Dr. Kadimcherla says. “But prevention efforts should center around maintaining good posture, exercising regularly, limiting repetitive activities – or taking frequent breaks when doing them – and maintaining a healthy weight.”
Pinched nerve treatments
The most frequently recommended treatment for a pinched nerve is simple: rest. Dr. Kadimcherla tells patients with pinched nerves to temporarily avoid any activities that tend to worsen symptoms.
Meanwhile, certain diagnostic tests may be in order to make sure the root problem is being addressed. Tests may include nerve conduction studies, which measure electrical nerve impulses and functioning in muscles and nerves with electrodes; electromyography, which evaluates electrical activity in muscles while contracting and at rest; and MRI imaging, which produces detailed views of possible nerve root compression.
Once diagnosed, pinched nerves are typically treated through so-called conservative, non-invasive measures, including:
- NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen, which can help relieve pain and inflammation around the nerve
- Physical therapy, which teaches exercises to strengthen and stretch muscles to relieve nerve pressure
Surgery to treat a pinched nerve is only done if all conservative treatments have failed and a patient’s pain and dysfunction are severe and long-lasting, Dr. Kadimcherla says.
“With rest and other simple treatments, most people recover from a pinched nerve within a few days to a few weeks,” he says. “When in doubt, however, visit a doctor. Nobody wants their lives compressed by a nasty compressed nerve.”