Pain that radiates down your arms or legs is distressing enough without having to learn the odd name of the problem causing it: “radiculitis”. Fortunately, this extremely common scenario usually responds quickly to treatment, says Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.
Not a condition in itself, radiculitis is actually a term describing the symptoms you feel when a nerve or nerve root coming from your spine is pinched, irritated, inflamed, or dysfunctional in some way, explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist. The resulting pain radiates along a nerve path attached to the spinal column.
“Any part of the spine can be impacted by radiculitis, but it usually causes problems in the neck or lower back,” he says. “When you’ve got it, your pain can come and go or be present at all times. For some people, symptoms are intense.”
Causes and risk factors
Preventing radiculitis isn’t always possible. That’s because you may have various risk factors making the problem more likely to occur. According to Dr. Chang, these include:
- You do heavy labor or participate in contact sports.
- You have a family history of radiculitis or other spine disorders.
- You have diabetes, which can lessen blood flow to spinal nerves.
- You are overweight.
- You don’t exercise often.
On the other hand, back and neck injuries from falls, car accidents, sports mishaps or even aging can all damage discs between spinal vertebrae. This damage can make nerve roots in the spine more vulnerable, triggering radiculitis, Dr. Chang says.
“Radiculitis can also result when nerves are impinged by other conditions, including arthritis, bone spurs, herniated discs, or a narrowing of the spinal canal called spinal stenosis,” he adds. “And radiculitis may include some localized back or neck pain in addition to the trademark pain, numbness and tingling it causes in the arms or legs. Sciatica, a term most people know better, actually describes radiculitis when pain radiates down the leg.”
Almost always, radiculitis treatment centers on non-surgical approaches, Dr. Chang says. First, however, a comprehensive diagnostic process should be followed to pinpoint any possible triggers of radiculitis, including herniated discs or other spinal conditions. “A thorough physical exam is wise, and your doctor may decide to use various imaging scans to view what’s happening inside your back,” he adds.
According to Dr. Chang, radiculitis treatment options typically include:
- Rest, especially after an injury that may have triggered radiculitis.
- NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen, which relieve pain, swelling and pressure.
- Physical therapy.
- Epidural steroid injections into the affected spinal region.
As with most spinal problems, surgery to treat radiculitis is typically reserved for only the most severe cases when less-invasive options don’t bring relief within 6 to 8 weeks, Dr. Chang notes.
“Most patients with radiculitis are able to simply look back on it as a ‘ridiculous’ episode that didn’t last long after treatment,” Dr. Chang says.