What causes radiculopathy?
In older people, radiculopathy typically is caused by degenerative changes in the spine that cause the discs to become compressed or result in the narrowing of the spinal canal. In younger patients, radiculopathy is most commonly caused by a ruptured disc caused by trauma, but it can also be caused by disease or lifestyle factors such as careers that require long periods of standing or sitting or heavy or repetitive lifting.
What are the symptoms of cervical radiculopathy?
Cervical radiculopathy typically causes symptoms in the neck, arms, fingers and shoulders, as well as the upper back and chest, including:
- shooting pain
- muscle weakness
- numbness or tingling
- loss or reduction of reflex reaction
- difficulty coordinating movements of the fingers or hands
Symptoms often become worse with specific types of movements, such as turning the head or stretching or craning the neck.
How is cervical radiculopathy diagnosed?
The doctor will begin by asking you about your symptoms and asking you about what you were doing when you first noticed symptoms occurring. You’ll also be asked about any physical activity or lifestyle habit that might have resulted in the condition.
Next, a physical exam will be performed to check for range of motion in your arms and neck, evaluate your reflexes and muscle strength, and determine which types of motions result in pain. In some cases, an x-ray, MRI or CT scan may be ordered to help confirm diagnosis.
How is cervical radiculopathy treated?
In many cases, cervical radiculopathy will resolve on its own with rest and mild exercise. When symptoms persist, non-surgical options will be tried, including:
- physical therapy
- exercises to relieve pressure on the nerve
- anti-inflammatory and pain medications
- injections of corticosteroids to relive inflammation
In a very few cases, surgery may be required to relive symptoms.
What are the symptoms of lumbar radiculopathy?
Lumbar radiculopathy symptoms are similar to those of cervical radiculopathy, but they occur in the lower extremities – the legs and feet. They may include:
- tingling or numbness
- loss of reflexes
How is lumbar radiculopathy diagnosed?
The evaluation will begin with a thorough history of your symptoms, including what you were doing when symptoms first appeared. The doctor will also ask about your lifestyle, physical activity and lifestyle habits that could provide clues to your condition. Your reflexes will be checked and you’ll probably be asked to perform certain exercises or tasks to check for muscle weakness, range of motion, pain and loss of coordination or balance. In some cases, diagnostic imaging such as x-ray, CT scan or MRI may be needed to confirm diagnosis.
How is lumbar radiculopathy treated?
Like cervical radiculopathy, lumbar radiculopathy may be treated non-surgically or surgically when needed. Non-surgical treatment options include:
- physical therapy
- anti-inflammatory and pain medications to reduce pressure and relieve pain
- injections of steroids to relieve symptoms
When symptoms do not resolve after several weeks of treatment, surgery may be considered to decompress the nerve or to help stabilize the spine.
As noted, thoracic radiculopathy is rare, and typically causes symptoms similar to lumbar and cervical radiculopathy, but in the middle portion of the back and chest. Management is also similar, with non-surgical options followed by surgery only when absolutely necessary.
If you’ve been experiencing any of the symptoms of radiculopathy, it’s important to have your condition evaluated so you can ensure you’re managing it properly. Evaluation by a spine specialist can also ensure their aren’t other underlying medical issues that could be causing your symptoms.