What is a Pinched Nerve?

Disc bulge causing a pinched nerve.

A pinched nerve in the spine is a term that is loosely used to describe nerve compression caused by a condition impinging on it. Herniated disc material, a bulging disc, spinal bone spurs, and various other conditions that affect the spine can lead to  pinched nerve symptoms in the back or neck. Pain, numbness or tingling, and a pins and needles type sensation are common signs that would suggest the possibility of a pinched nerve.

Where Does a Pinched Nerve Develop?

Nerve compression can occur in many locations throughout your body. Typical sites include your lower spine (lumbar region) and neck (cervical region). A pinched nerve in the back often results in sciatica, pain that is felt in your buttocks and radiates down to the back of your upper leg are rarely below the knee. A pinched nerve in the neck may cause radiating pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness felt in the arms and hand. Nerve compression is not restrained to spinal nerve roots alone. For example, a pinched nerve in your wrist can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome, pain and numbness in your hand and fingers.

doctors note

Note From Dr. Liu:

With rest and other conservative treatments, most people recover from a pinched nerve in the neck or back within a few days or weeks. Sometimes, however, surgery is necessary to relieve pain.

Generally, there is no need to be worried about symptoms that are around for only a short time. If a nerve is compressed for only a short duration, it generally doesn’t cause permanent damage. And once the pressure is relieved, normal nerve functions are restored. However, if the symptoms stay for a long time and the pinched nerve is not relieved, much more serious symptoms such as chronic pain, nerve death, or muscle atrophy could occur.

healthy spinal nerve with no compression
Figure 1a. What a healthy nerve should look like.
pinched nerve in the spine caused by a disc bulge
Figure 1b. Pinched nerve caused by a bulging disc.