With David T. Anderson, MD
What is Pinched Nerve?
Pinched nerve is also referred to as cervical radiculopathy. It is in simple terms a damaged or compressed nerve. This condition occurs when a nerve in your neck is pressed forcing it to branch away from the spinal cord. This movement leads to a sharp pain through your shoulder down your arm. It can also cause muscle numbness and weakness.
In the United States, about 85 out of 100,000 adults get affected by pinched nerves. It is most common in adults that are between the ages of 50 and 54. In this age group, it occurs as a result of a herniated disk where one of the soft disks that is located between the vertebrae slips due to bending, twisting or sudden lifting irritating the nearby nerves. In older people, they occur due to degeneration of the spine.
What Causes Pinched Neck?
This condition occurs as the spine wears and tears as you age. Arthritis, a condition that develops as you age is a major cause for this condition. In younger people an injury that often causes a herniated disk can cause the condition.
It is important to first understand the anatomy to understand the underlying causes and effects as well as the possible treatment of this condition.
The Anatomy of the Spine
The spine comprises 24 bones stacked on one another. These bones are called vertebrae. They connect to form a canal that keeps the spinal cord from external damage. The first seven vertebrae of the 24 that are at the base of your skull and which form the neck are called the cervical spine.
The spinal cord travels down the spinal canal and has nerve roots that branch out through some openings in the vertebrae called foramen connecting to your muscles. This connection enables proper communication between your brain and all the muscles in your body structure.
Your body receives a lot of shock when you perform intense activities like running, jumping or even when walking. To cushion you from this shock are some intervertebral disks situated in between the vertebrae. These disks are round and flat and approximately half an inch thick. Their structure enables them to absorb the shock from the body’s activities. They are made up of two main parts. These parts are annulus fibrosus, the outer tough and flexible ring of the disk and the nucleus pulposus that is the soft jelly-like part at the center of the disk.
Injury to the spine causes the intervertebral disk to bulge out or to get herniated. In this situation the jelly-like soft spot inside the intervertebral pushes out towards the outer flexible ring of the disk. If for instance the flexible ring or annulus fibrosus is too worn out or injured, the nucleus will push out completely and cause serious discomfort on the spinal canal. This bulging exerts immense pressure on the nerve roots that are super sensitive resulting in stinging pain and weakness in the area or the muscle that nerve is connected to. A herniated disk may occur due to sudden jerks like in a physical confrontation or an accident, pulling, bending and sudden twisting movements.
In older adults, that is those 54 years and above, the degeneration of the spine may lead to this condition. As you get older, disks in your spine degenerate and lose height. They also lose their fluids making them stiffer. When this happens, the discs collapse in their spaces forcing the vertebrae to move closer. When they do, they prevent the discs from absorbing shock effectively. In response, the body begins forming more bone to strengthen the disk. This bone is called bone spur. It is these bone spurs that cause the spine to stiffen, and narrow down the foramen pinching the nerve root as a result.
Such changes caused through degeneration are inevitable in every middle-aged individual. The condition is called spondylosis or arthritis and occurs in most adults over the age of 54. The pinched nerves and the worn out disks do not cause any pain in a majority of people, apart from a few exceptions.
Pinched nerve affects a part of your nervous system. If you feel any of these symptoms, do not ignore them. You could easily become disabled if you do not get appropriate treatment or therapy and the condition gets worse. Here are some of the symptoms that you ought to look out for;
- Sharp or burning pain within the affected area.
- Muscles becoming weak in the area affected
- Paresthesia (A kind of tingling and needles sensations.
- Numbness in your hands and feet and decreased sensation in the affected area.
- People suffering from diabetes are at a higher risk of getting their nerves compressed
- Repetitive movements of wrists, hands and shoulders like what happens in an assembly line can increase your likelihood of getting a pinched nerve.
- Obesity. People with excess weight exert pressure on their nerves
- Laying in bed for too long may have adverse effects on your nerves.
- Pregnancy adds more water and weight to your body that can cause your pathways to swell and put pressure on your nerves.
- Sexual intercourse. Women are at higher risk of pinch nerves since they have smaller carpal tunnels as compared to men
Prevention is always better than cure or treatment. Here are some things you should put to practice to avoid the condition.
- Regular exercise. When exercising, take precautions not to overload your body, and incorporate flexibility exercises in your program
- Maintain good sitting and sleeping positions
- Take breaks when doing repetitive activities to allow your muscles to relax and stretch
- Have a balanced diet.
Most people recover from this condition with rest and some physical therapy. You should recover in just a few days or weeks. If, however, after some therapies and resting the pain still persists, then you should make a point of visiting a physician.
When you visit a physician, they may recommend that you wear a soft cervical collar to limit your neck movement for some time. You should only wear this for a short period to prevent weakening your neck muscles. The doctor can also write a prescription of non-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and aspirin to relieve your pain.
If the condition is at an advanced stage, you may need surgery. The type of surgery you get will depend on your doctor’s judgment after a thorough examination.