What is a Pinched Nerve?
Our bodies each contain a complex network of nerves. They extend from our brains through our arms, legs and other extremities to send messages to our muscles and skin. Nerves also extend from the spinal cord and are especially sensitive to pressure. Typically, our nerves are most vulnerable when they travel through narrow spaces in our bodies but have very little tissue for protection, such as when exiting the spine.
A pinched nerve, known medically as nerve compression, occurs when there is pressure placed upon the nerve in question. Oftentimes, this happens when an internal or external force causes the nerve to become trapped and unexpectedly pressed between tissues such as ligaments, bones, cartilage or tendons. The pain associated with a pinched nerve can be minor or severe and may cause cervical radiculopathy, a condition in which the pain radiates out into extremities such as the arms, hands, legs and feet.
Whether the pain is mild or high, it’s always helpful to remember that the sooner a patient receives treatment, then the more likely they are to avoid permanent nerve damage, fluid build-up, scarring and swelling.
Pinched Nerve Causes
There can be a wide variety of causes for pressure on a nerve, but some of the most common include:
- Herniated disc(s), an oftentimes painful condition that occurs when a tear or weakness in a vertebral disc’s outer layer allows the gel-like inner layer to leak into the spinal canal. This puts pressure onto area nerves and can cause significant discomfort.
- Bone spurs, small, sharp outgrowths of bone that can develop along the spine when minor inflammation causes cells to deposit extra bone in the area.
- Spinal arthritis, a fairly common condition that occurs when cartilage in the joints becomes worn down and eventually disappears due to aging, wear and tear and/or trauma. Inflammation can also occur, placing pressure onto nearby nerves.
- Repetitive motions, often associated with sports, exercise, improper lifting or other heavy use of the back (such as in physical, labor-intensive jobs).
- Holding the body in one position for a long period of time, such as when sleeping or traveling long distances.
- Sudden and unexpected trauma and/or accident
- Pregnancy, due to increased weight and water retention, which are both risk factors for developing pinched nerves
The spine is an incredibly intricate structure and it can also be highly susceptible to injury, ailment and even general wear and tear. Any changes to the components of the spine – from its discs to its bones and tendons – can quickly irritate or pinch a nearby nerve, causing pain, discomfort and even affecting a patient’s daily life and activities.
Pinched Nerve Symptoms
Pinched nerves have several key symptoms, including:
- Radiating pain through the neck or lower back
- Shooting pain through the leg or foot if the pinched nerve is located in the lower back
- Shooting pain through the shoulder or arm if the pinched nerve is located in the neck
- Muscle spasms
- Tingling and pins-and-needles sensations
- Numbness or weakness in the arms or legs, due to the pinched nerve controlling specific muscles
- Burning or “hot and cold” sensations
Some of the areas where pinched nerves most frequently occur include:
- The sciatic nerve, which can cause pain through the lower back and into the leg
- The cervical spine, better known as the neck region of the back. Pinched nerves in the neck can cause radiating pain through the shoulder blade and/or arm
- The common peroneal nerve, which is located in the lower leg and typically controls specific muscles in the calf, foot and toes
Pinched Nerve Non-Surgical Treatment Options
At Laser Spine & Orthopedics®, we treat each patient as an individual and thoroughly review all factors before deciding on a recommended course of treatment. This includes discussing the patient’s health history, examining imaging (such as C.T. scans, MRIs or X-rays) and learning about their unique symptoms, lifestyle and goals.
There are many conservative and non-surgical options available to relieve a pinched nerve. We frequently implement combinations of the following, depending on the patient’s condition:
- Rest and Physical Therapy
Simply taking it easy on the affected area can be very effective in allowing the nerve to heal. If necessary, a splint or collar can encourage limited motion and force the affected area to rest. Sometimes, we may suggest physical therapy through specialized exercises designed to strengthen the back and alleviate pressure from a nerve.
- Anti-Inflammatory Medications
Over-the-counter and prescription medicines can oftentimes relieve the inflammation, pain and swelling associated with a pinched nerve.
In addition to pain mapping, which allows us to pinpoint the precise location of your pinched nerve, we also feature a variety of steroid injections. These injections are designed to bathe irritated nerves in soothing medication that offers immediate pain relief. This reduces inflammation and alleviates discomfort while a more permanent solution for the pinched nerve is determined.
- Hot and Cold Therapy
Alternating between hot and cold therapy, such as heating pads, ice packs, moist heat and other at-home options, can bring relief for mildly painful pinched nerves. By following our physicians’ instructions for correctly implementing hot and cold therapies, discomfort can be soothed while the pinched nerve heals itself.
- Massage and Acupuncture
Deep therapeutic massage by a licensed therapist can encourage blood flow and induce relaxation while gentle, targeted pressure on the nerve can help to relieve tension and pain. Additionally, acupuncture uses specialized needles on specific trigger points within the muscle and is commonly used as a conservative treatment for compressed or pinched nerves.
Pinched Nerve Minimally Invasive Treatment Options
Our team of neck, back and spine specialists are experts in the treatment of pinched nerves. We always recommend conservative care first, including the non-surgical treatment options listed above.
On rare occasions, minimally invasive surgery may be required for extreme cases. Our minimally invasive treatments use tiny incisions to carefully remove portions of a vertebral disc, scar tissue, bone spurs or other elements that may be pressing onto the nerve.
In the event that surgery is deemed appropriate, patients can rest assured that our advanced minimally invasive techniques mean quicker recovery times, less scarring and trauma to surrounding areas and rapid pain relief.