Although people tend to use the term “pinched nerve” as a generic catch-all to describe any sharp pain in their neck or back, a pinched nerve is actually a specific ailment that has a variety of symptoms, causes, and treatment options that you should be aware of.
What is a Pinched Nerve?
A pinched nerve occurs when a peripheral nerve in your body is compressed by surrounding tissue. A peripheral nerve is any nerve that exists outside of your brain and spinal column. Therefore, you can experience a pinched nerve almost anywhere in your body. For example, a pinched nerve in your wrist can lead to pain and numbness in your hand and fingers. A pinched nerve in your leg can cause muscle weakness and tingling in the foot and toes.
What are the Symptoms of a Pinched Nerve?
The signs and symptoms of a pinched nerve include:
- Numbness or decreased feeling in the area supplied by the nerve
- Sharp, aching, or burning pain, which may radiate outward
- Tingling sensations
- Muscle weakness
- Frequent feelings that a foot or hand has gone numb or “fallen asleep”
Be sure to see a pain specialist if the signs and symptoms of a pinched nerve last for several days or get worse.
What Causes a Pinched Nerve?
When the tissues surrounding the nerve such as bones, muscles, or tendons become inflamed, misshapen, or swollen and compress the nerve, then you have a pinched nerve. People who already have any of these existing conditions are at increased risk of developing pinched nerves:
- Bone spurs
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Thyroid disease
Other risk factors for developing pinched nerves include:
- Overuse. Jobs or hobbies that require repetitive hand, wrist, or shoulder movements, increase your likelihood of a pinched nerve.
- Obesity. Excess weight can add pressure to nerves.
- Pregnancy. Water and weight gain associated with pregnancy can cause nerve compression.
- Prolonged bed rest. Long periods of lying down, like when recovering from surgery or illness, can increase the risk of nerve compression.
How is a Pinched Nerve Diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects a pinched nerve, you may undergo some tests which can include a nerve conduction study or an electromyography (EMG). Each of these nerve tests are used to measure the electrical activity and function of your muscles and nerves and can help your doctor determine what’s causing your pain.
Your doctor may also order imaging tests such as an MRI or a high-frequency ultrasound. These tests can help your doctor see where the nerve compression is and if there’s any other damage to surrounding tissue.
What are the Best Treatments for a Pinched Nerve?
The most frequently recommended treatments for a pinched nerve are:
- Rest. Your doctor will ask you to avoid any activities that may aggravate the affected area.
- Immobilization. Depending on the location of the pinched nerve, you may need a splint or brace to immobilize the area.
- Physical therapy. Certain exercises can help you build flexibility and reduce pressure on your nerve.
- Medications. To reduce pain, you may take over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen, Advil, Motrin IB, or Aleve, as directed by your doctor.
- Cortisone injections. Administered by your doctor, these injections can provide pain relief when other medications fail to do so.
If the pain from the pinched nerve doesn’t go away after several weeks of conservative treatment, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove bone spurs, open nerve pathways, or make other repairs to take pressure off of the affected nerves.
If you’re experiencing a pinched nerve or other pain that’s interfering with your quality of life, then make an appointment to see a pain specialist such as Dr. Mingi Choi of Somerset Orthopedic & Sports Medicine. Dr. Choi has more than 25 years of experience successful diagnosing and treating those who suffer from chronic pain. He is board-certified by the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and a Fellow of American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.