Nerves run all through our body, and it’s amazing how just a little bit of pressure or compression on one of these nerves can cause immense pain. When the problem happens in your neck, it is medically known as cervical radiculopathy. Below, we take a closer look at the causes, symptoms and treatment options for pinched nerves in the neck.
Causes and Symptoms of Cervical Radiculopathy
Pathologically speaking, cervical radiculopathy occurs when one of the nerves that branches away from the spinal cord becomes compressed, pinched or otherwise irritated. Pinched nerves in the neck have a range of causes, only some of which are preventable. For example, pinched cervical nerves can be caused by acute trauma, herniated discs, spinal arthritis, micro-degeneration from years of physical activity, or wear and tear exacerbated by things like poor posture, being overweight, or smoking (which can affect the stability of the spinal column). Older individuals are more likely to experience pinched nerves due to degenerative changes, while younger patients are more likely to deal with pinched nerves caused by acute trauma.
Symptoms of a pinched nerve in the neck include:
- Pain in the neck
- Pain that radiates to the arms or legs
- Muscle weakness
- Loss of range of motion in the neck
- Inhibited gait
Diagnosing and Treating Pinched Nerves in the Neck
As with most spinal conditions, patients will benefit from a diagnosis from a spinal specialist. After arriving at their office, your spine care specialist will take a look at your health history and ask about your symptoms. From there, your doctor will conduct a physical exam of your neck and extremities, and they may perform some manipulation exercises to see which motions relieve or exacerbate symptoms.
Once they have an idea of where the compression is taking place, they’ll confirm their suspicions with the help of an imaging test. The most common imaging test is an X-ray, which can show the alignment of bones in your neck and any disc damage, but your doctor may also recommend an MRI or CT scan, because they will provide a more detailed picture of the soft tissues in your neck.
If you are diagnosed with a pinched nerve in your neck, your doctor will walk you through your treatment options. It’s important to note that the vast majority of cases of cervical radiculopathy resolve with non-operative treatment. Common nonsurgical treatment options include:
- Soft Neck Collar or Brace – This will help limit neck movement and can decrease symptoms brought on by excessive head movement.
- Medications – NSAIDs or oral corticosteroids can help to calm nerve pain caused by inflammation or nerve irritation.
- Physical Therapy – Targeted range of motion exercises can help to relieve pain and strengthen neck muscles in the area, which can help free compressed nerves.
- Steroid Injections – Steroid injections near the affected nerve can reduce inflammation and resolve symptoms.
In the unlikely scenario that conservative treatment doesn’t resolve your issue, a minimally invasive, motion preservation surgical procedure may be advised. The specific course of treatment will be determined on a case-by-case basis, but the ultimate goal of all cervical radiculopathy operations is to free the compressed nerve, which oftentimes involves removing part of a damaged disc or bone spurs that have developed in the area. Surgery is rarely needed, but yields great results.
For more information about pinched nerves in your neck, or to talk to a doctor about your pain, reach out to Dr. Sinicropi today.