What causes a nerve to become pinched?
The human spine contains 31 nerve pairs, each of which controls the sensations and movements in different areas of the body. Nerves leave the spinal column at specific locations between the bones of the spine, or vertebrae. Sometimes, the vertebrae or the spongy discs located between them “slip” or move out of place, or the soft tissues surrounding the nerves become inflamed and swollen. Other times, natural changes such as arthritis can cause the openings in the vertebrae to become narrow, decreasing the space occupied by the nerves. When these conditions occur, the nerves can become compressed or “pinched.”
Several factors can contribute to a pinched nerve, including:
- Trauma and injury, especially car accidents, falls and sports injuries that cause impact-related compression or inflammation
- Bad posture when standing or sitting, which places stress on the spine
- Poor body mechanics such as improper lifting or reaching
- Obesity, which can cause the spine to become compressed or place uneven stresses on the spine
- Degenerative disc disease, which causes nerves to become “pinched” or trapped between vertebrae
- Herniated discs, which cause pressure on the nerves near the spinal column
- Arthritis or spinal stenosis, which can cause the spinal column to become narrow, crowding nerves as they asps through the spinal column
In addition, there are risk factors that make people more prone to developing pinched nerves, including:
- Female gender
- Thyroid disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
What are the symptoms of a pinched nerve?
Pinched nerves commonly cause symptoms like pain, tingling, numbness or “pins and needles” sensations in the arm, leg, hand or foot; or muscle weakness in the affected area that occurs because the nerve signals between the muscles and the brain are being blocked.
How is a pinched nerve diagnosed?
Treatment begins with a physical exam so the doctor can evaluate your symptoms and understand which area of the spine appears to be causing the problem. Following the exam, the doctor may order tests such as:
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This diagnostic imaging technique can be used to obtain detailed pictures of the spine and the area surrounding it to help identify what is causing the nerve to be “pinched” or compressed.
- Nerve conduction studies: These tests use electrodes on the skin to measure the electrical impulses and functioning of different nerves when a low current of electricity is passed through them. They can help your doctor determine if your nerve is damaged.
- Electromyography (EMG): In this test, very thin needles are inserted in different muscles to measure the electrical activity while muscles are relaxed and contracting. This test can also help narrow down the type of nerve damage you’re experiencing and which spinal nerve is causing it.
How is a pinched nerve treated?
Once the underlying problem is diagnosed, your doctor will decide on the best treatment to help relieve your symptoms. In some cases, rest may be all that’s needed for your condition to resolve. But other times, you may benefit from prescription medication to reduce pain and inflammation, corticosteroid injections to reduce inflammation specifically in the affected area of the spine, or physical therapy to gently stretch and strengthen muscles. In a few cases, surgery may be necessary to relive the pressure on the nerve.
When treatment occurs early, soon after symptoms begin, the chances of long-term nerve damage are slim; but when treatment is delayed, permanent damage and chronic pain can result.