What is a pinched nerve?
There’s one thing that indicates you have a pinched nerve: pain. But what is a pinched nerve exactly? It’s a lot like what it sounds like, a nerve that becomes compressed or pinched between two things, usually a bone and something else. Nerves run through your entire body and send sensory information to the brain, which is why when they become pinched they can cause pain in the area. Often times these pinched nerves occurs in the spine due a number of different causes like herniated discs, spinal stenosis, or a spinal injury.
Pinched nerve in the neck
The nerves in the neck are susceptible to becoming compressed due to a few causes. Lifting heavy weights often and without proper precautions can contribute to pinched nerves in the neck. Disc degeneration due to aging is the most common cause of pinched nerves in the neck. This process involves the dehydration of spinal discs which becomes weakened. The foramen, or the holes between the vertebrae also narrow, and it’s these holes that spinal cord nerves travel through. The medical term for this narrowing is called foraminal stenosis, which puts pressure on neck nerves. If the spinal disc outer wall weakens due to degeneration it can also cause a herniated disc, which is the bulging of the inner disc through the outer wall. The inner disc bulging outwards puts pressure on a nearby spinal nerve and pinches it against bone, which results in a pinched nerve in the neck.
Pain in the neck and shoulder radiating down the arm
When a nerve gets pinched in the neck sometimes the pain is local to the area of the pinched nerve. But other times it can radiate outwards to surrounding areas, such as a shoulder and arm. This is known as cervical radiculopathy, and the amount of pain you feel might just be slightly irritating or it could be debilitating to everyday life. If you move your neck the pain can be aggravated as well. In many cases cervical radiculopathy can be healed with conservative treatments such as medication and physical therapy.
What does a pinched nerve feel like?
A pinched nerve in the neck is associated with some pain, but there are other symptoms you can feel while it’s happening. You may also feel numbness or decreased sensation in the arm, shoulder or hand. Tingling or a pins and needles feeling in the fingers is also commonly associated with a neck pinched nerve. If these sensations and symptoms are mild you can try exercises that help with the pinched nerve. However, if they’re severe and interrupt your daily life it’s beneficial to consult with a medical doctor to walk through proper diagnosis and treatment strategies. You should also consider seeing a doctor if the symptoms last more than a few days.
The length you may feel a pinched nerve depends on a number of factors such as how your immune system responds, the cause of the compression, and how much compression is actually happening to the nerve.
Pinched Nerve Diagnosis
Doctors ask about the symptoms and do a physical examination of the neck, shoulders, arms and hands. They will ask you to move your arms and neck to see where the weakness or pain is, and the range of motion you have. Along with the examination there are a number of diagnostic tests that help pin point the exact cause and location of the pinched nerve, or rule it out as a possible condition. Imaging tests are very helpful in that they can view inside the body with a 3 dimensional image. These imaging tests include an X-ray, CT Scan, MRI Scan or EMG.
How to fix a pinched nerve?
There are a few paths of treatment for pinched nerves. The first is just simple rest while limiting activities that irritate the nerve or cause symptoms to flare up. Sometimes this is enough to alleviate the pinched nerve symptoms and the body heals on its own. If you don’t find relief with this you can add nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin or ibuprofen, or add heat & ice packs for 15 minutes at a time. Physical therapy also helps to improve the strength of the neck, flexibility and posture, which can all aid in reducing inflammation of the nerve.
The next step in treatment is an epidural steroid injection that surrounds the inflamed nerve with anti-inflammatory and pain reducing medication that can have a long lasting effect on the nerve. Typically this gives an immediate relief and allows the patient to undergo physical therapy to give long term pinched nerve healing. Chiropractic care can also be used in tandem with physical therapy and any other medications to target the pinched nerve. When the symptoms don’t respond to any of the previously mentioned treatments surgical interventions will be considered by your doctor.
Pinched Nerve Surgery
Anterior cervical discectomy and fusion or ACDF removes the disc and bone spurs that are causing the pinched nerve, and fuse the two vertebrae together stabilizing the affected part of the spine. Artificial disc replacement replaces a herniating disc with an artificial disc that’s made of metal or plastic, which are engineered to last over 50 years and allow natural movement of the spine. Laser spine surgery is a minimally invasive procedure that inserts a needle into the disc and shrinks the herniating nucleus through the use of a laser. The benefits of using minimally invasive surgery are faster recovery time, and less risk of complications.
Pinched Nerve Recovery Time
Pinched nerves generally have a good outlook, and most people recover from a pinched nerve in the neck. A majority of people recover within 4 weeks without needing surgery, but if surgery is needed what is the recovery time? That depends on which surgery is required for remedying the neck pain. Recovery from open surgeries can take up to 3 months or if you’re talking about spinal fusion it can range from a few months to a year to be 100% recovered and able to do more intensive regular activities. Laser spine has a faster recovery period of a couple weeks and is an outpatient procedure, which means you can go home the same day without the need for any hospital stay.