Being pinched is not usually enjoyable, and this is certainly the case with pinched nerves around the spine. But fortunately, this highly common problem tends to get better on its own over time, says Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, founder, and medical director of Atlantic Spine Center.
The term “pinched nerve” is a casual one, but medically speaking, it means a nerve has been compressed, according to Dr. Liu. When this happens to nerves leading from the spine – whether in the neck or lower back region – these “pinch points” can result in nagging pain, tingling and numbness. Symptoms can stay for a day or two or linger for weeks or longer, he says, as well as range from minor to excruciating.
“Your individual symptoms will depend greatly on where the compressed nerve is located,” explains Dr. Liu. “If it is in your neck, your arms and hands will likely suffer pain, numbness, tingling and possibly weakness. If the pinched nerve is in your back, you might feel pain in your buttocks that radiates down the legs.”
Causes and risk factors
With so many people experiencing pinched nerves at some point in their life, it is clear that a combination of risk factors – both controllable and uncontrollable – can blend with other triggers that directly cause the problem, Dr. Liu notes.
You are more likely to deal with a pinched nerve if you’re:
- Overweight or obese
- Have diabetes
- Work in an occupation requiring repetitive motions
- Have a family history of pinched nerves
But certain events, habits or medical conditions can also lead to pinched nerves, regardless of your risk factors, Dr. Liu says. These include:
- Poor posture
- Staying in one position for long periods
- Spinal bone spurs
- Herniated or bulging discs in spinal vertebrae
“Ideally, we’ll do all we can to prevent pinched nerves around our spine, including controlling our weight, paying attention to posture, exercising regularly and limiting repetitive movements,” he says. “This strategy doesn’t always prevent them, but we certainly up our odds of keeping nerves healthy by being vigilant.”
Diagnosis and treatment
With symptoms only able to suggest the area of the spine affected by pinched nerves, it’s up to clinicians to root out the cause of the problem, Dr. Liu points out. Various diagnostic tests can pinpoint causes, including:
- MRI scans, which produces images of potential nerve compression
- Nerve conduction studies using electrodes to measure nerve response, along with muscle and nerve function
- Electromyography, which assess the muscles’ electrical activity while contracting and at rest
The good news is treatment for most pinched nerves involves a very simple concept: rest. Avoiding activities that can worsen symptoms is the best approach, Dr. Liu says.
Other treatments include:
- NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen, which can lessen nerve pain and inflammation.
- Physical therapy, which can relieve pressure on nerves by stretching and strengthening surrounding muscles.
- Surgery, which is usually held as a last resort if non-operative measures don’t relieve severe pain after a long period.
“Nobody wants their pinched nerves to linger, but that’s rarely the case for the vast majority of us who experience this nagging issue,” Dr. Liu says. “See your doctor if relief doesn’t come with simple measures and a bit of time.”