Few people enjoy being pinched, and enduring a pinched nerve in the neck is no exception. But how can you tell if you’ve got a pinched neck nerve, and what can you do to ease symptoms? Fortunately, diagnosing and treating pinched nerves in your neck is a straightforward process, according to Kaliq Chang MD, of Atlantic Spine Center. In this article, Dr. Chang shares information on the causes, diagnosis and treatment of a pinched nerve in the neck.
Pinched nerves symptoms
Pinched nerves can happen at several places in your body. The neck, also called the cervical spine, houses 7 bony vertebrae. Nerve roots stemming from each side of the cervical spine lead to your upper body, including the arms and hands. When these nerves are compressed, too much pressure is being applied by surrounding tissues, including bones, cartilage, muscles or tendons. Also known as cervical radiculopathy, that’s the definition of a pinched nerve, Dr. Chang explains.
The resulting symptoms can last a short or long while, be minor or severe, or anything in between.
“Pinched nerves in the neck often trigger pain, numbness, weakness or tingling in the arms and hands,” explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist. “When they’re severe, these symptoms can definitely cut into your enjoyment of everyday life and make certain tasks hard to do.”
Your symptoms can be located in the neck, shoulders, arms, and hands. It’s important to remember that a loss of sensation in arms or hands can also be a symptom of a pinched nerve.
Causes and risk factors
Sometimes we can control the risk factors that can lead to a pinched neck nerve, and sometimes we can’t. But certain physical or other characteristics raise the chances that you’ll be stricken with a pinched nerve.
According to Dr. Chang, they include:
- Overweight or obesity
- Family history
- Jobs that require repetitive movements
Risk factors are one thing, but some habits and conditions can directly cause pinched nerves in the neck, Dr. Chang notes. These include:
- Poor posture
- Holding your neck in one position for long periods
- Bone spurs in your cervical spine
- Bulging or herniated discs in your neck vertebrae
“It’s smart to do whatever we can to prevent pinched nerves in our neck, even if prevention isn’t always possible,” Dr. Chang says. “Controlling your weight, maintaining good posture and limiting repetitive movements gives you the best odds of skirting this problem.”
Pinched nerves diagnosis and tests
Pinched nerves in the neck and elsewhere typically resolve on their own within weeks. But if yours doesn’t – and especially if your range of motion is hindered – seeing a doctor is a wise choice. To determine the correct diagnosis, a doctor might need tests results, in particular, blood tests to estimate glucose levels.
A spinal tap is performed to collect a sample of cerebrospinal fluid from the area surrounding the spinal cord to check for inflammation.
To see a narrowing or damage causing a pinched nerve, an X-ray may be recommended.
There’s also a special nerve conduction study, which measures electrical nerve impulses and functioning.
Electromyography also checks for nerve damage by estimating electrical activity in muscles.
Magnetic resonance imaging is performed to check for nerve root compression via a magnetic field and radio waves.
A high-frequency ultrasound produces images of inner structures, which allows seeing nerve compression syndromes.
Once again, various tests can diagnose a pinched nerve, including nerve conduction studies, which use electrodes to measure nerve impulses, muscle and nerve function; electromyography, which examines electrical activity in muscles; and MRI imaging, which can reveal possible nerve root compression.
Pinched nerves treatment
Rest is one of the best, and simplest, ways to treat a pinched nerve in your neck, Dr. Chang says, as well as avoid making symptoms worse. So, limiting mobility and other activities that can aggravate compression is key.
A splint, collar or brace can be used to help you limit mobility in a special area.
There are several home remedies that can help ease the pain. Applying cold or heat packs to the aching spot can relieve some pain. Sometimes, gentle massage also helps.
Many patients are offered to have a course of physical therapy to strengthen and stretch muscles in the affected area. Such exercises can help relieve pressure on the nerve.
As with many other conditions, the pinched nerve is easier to prevent than to treat.
There are several lifestyle changes to help prevent a pinched nerve. They include maintaining a healthy body weight and having a balanced healthy diet rich in vitamin D, Zinc, Calcium, and water.
Quitting smoking and drinking is also a good idea, as nicotine slows down regeneration processes and badly influences your overall health.
Another two tips are incorporating some movement into your life to increase muscle strength and flexibility, and choosing ergonomic furniture. Using proper tables and chairs is extremely important if you have a sedentary lifestyle and need to spend most of your time sitting. In this case, also try to stand up and perform some exercises once in a while to get some movement.
Pinched nerves medications
Other treatments can also include NSAIDs such as ibuprofen and naproxen to lessen pain and inflammation, or physical therapy to relieve pressure on nerves by strengthening and stretching surrounding tissues. Dr. Chang also utilizes epidural steroid injections as a pain relief treatment before considering surgery. There are other types of medications to treat nerve-related pain. They include anticonvulsants, such as gabapentin and tricyclic medications such as nortriptyline and amitriptyline.
Corticosteroids can also be given to minimize pain and inflammation.
Surgery is typically a last resort, performed only if all conservative measures haven’t worked to ease the pain and other symptoms over the long run. The type of surgery differs due to the location of a pinched nerve.
Surgery can target removing bone spurs or a part of a herniated disk in the spine. Such procedures create more room for the nerve to pass through.
“Permanent nerve damage can sometimes occur if a pinched nerve in your neck isn’t monitored or treated,” Dr. Chang says. “But for most, this condition is merely a nuisance that lasts a few days or weeks. Let your doctor know if that isn’t the case.”