A pinched nerve in the neck occurs when a nerve root (which stems from the spinal cord and travels to various parts of the body) in the cervical, or neck, region of the spine, is compressed. This condition can range from being a minor discomfort to a debilitating condition, potentially limiting you from doing seemingly simple tasks like driving or sleeping. In some cases, this nerve pain can be caused by something as minor as a tweak in the neck from sleeping in the wrong position or twisting your neck too far to one side. In these instances, the pinched nerve often heals itself after a few days of rest and pain medication, and likely does not require medical attention.
However, nerve pain that lasts longer than a few days could be an indication of a cervical (upper) spine condition causing nerve compression, which likely will require medical attention and treatment. Whether you are researching potential causes of your neck pain or you have been diagnosed with a spine condition, learning more about pinched nerves in the neck can help you work more closely with your doctor to find the relief you deserve, and help you reclaim your quality of life from neck or back pain.
What are the symptoms of a pinched nerve in the neck?
Radiating pain, numbness, tingling and muscle weakness are the most common symptoms of a pinched nerve in the neck. However, where in the body these symptoms manifest largely depends on the location of the pinched nerve.
The cervical spine has seven vertebrae, labeled C1 to C7, that start at the base of the skull and run through the neck and upper back. These vertebrae have eight pairs of nerve roots located between the vertebrae, with nerve root pair C8 resting between the last cervical vertebra (C7) and the first thoracic vertebra (T1).
Although not everyone experiences the same symptoms, the following is a list of symptoms commonly felt in relation to where a cervical nerve is pinched:
- Pinched nerve at C5. This can cause shoulder pain, deltoid weakness and possibly a small area of numbness in the shoulder.
- Pinched nerve at C6. This can cause weakness of the biceps and wrist extensors, and pain or numbness that travels down the arm to the thumb.
- Pinched nerve at C7. This can cause pain or numbness that moves down the arm to the middle finger.
- Pinched nerve at C8. This can cause hand dysfunction and pain or numbness that can run to the outside of the hand (little finger) and impair its reflex.
Common causes of a pinched nerve in the neck
The natural aging process is perhaps the most common factor that can lead to a pinched nerve in the neck. The aging process that each person experiences inherently leads to the weakening of discs and other components of the spine, making them more susceptible to damage. While there is no way to prevent the natural age-related degeneration of the spine, you can do your best to slow the rate at which the spine degenerates by practicing good posture and avoiding tobacco and alcohol use.
Additionally, obesity is considered another potential cause of a pinched nerve in the neck. Being overweight can increase the rate at which a person’s spine experiences degeneration, as the spines of overweight individuals must endure more stress on a daily basis to support the extra body weight. Other factors that can contribute to premature degeneration of the spine’s components include participation in sports like golf, gymnastics, football and hockey, as well as working a job that requires repetitive bending or twisting motions. All of these factors put undue stress on the spine.
Rapid degeneration of the components of the spine increases the risk of developing a degenerative spine condition that can cause a nerve in the neck to become pinched. Some examples of spine conditions that can cause a pinched nerve are:
- Degenerative disc disease. This is a spine condition that is common in adults over the age of 50, characterized by the ongoing deterioration of the spine’s cushioning discs. When spinal discs weaken, they are more likely to bulge or tear. The displaced disc material from a bulging or herniated disc can press on a nearby nerve root in the spine. In addition, as discs are less able to support the vertebrae, these spinal bones can move closer together and potentially pinch nerve roots located in the channels (foramen) between the vertebrae.
- Bulging discs. A bulging disc occurs when a disc’s outer wall (annulus fibrosus) weakens and the pressure from the disc’s inner core material (nucleus pulposus) causes the disc to protrude, or bulge, out of its normal place in the spinal column. This can lead to a pinched nerve if the bulging part of the disc touches a spinal nerve root.
- Herniated discs. A herniated disc describes a disc in the spine that has a tear in its outer shell. This tear can allow the material from the nucleus pulposus to seep out of the disc and into the spinal column, where it can potentially compress a nerve root.
- Bone spurs. Bone spurs are smooth bony growths in the spine that develop on top of normal bone. They often grow in response to the development of arthritis in the spine. The growth of a bone spur does not cause any pain by itself, but it can lead to debilitating pain if it forms near and compresses a nerve root.
- Spinal arthritis. Arthritis of the spine develops when the cartilage that lines the spine’s facet joints (the joints that connect vertebrae) wears away. When the facets joints come into contact with one another without this cartilage, a person may experience pain, stiffness and a limited range of motion in the spine. Additionally, the friction that results from the bone-on-bone contact can trigger the growth of a bone spur and ultimately cause a pinched nerve.
Treatment options for a pinched nerve in the neck
The treatment recommended for a pinched nerve in your neck depends on the cause of the condition and the severity of the nerve compression. For many patients, pinched nerve treatment will begin with a course of conservative treatment.
Conservative treatment for a pinched nerve
The specific conservative treatments a patient will be prescribed will depend on several individual factors. That said, there are several treatments that are commonly used for patients with a pinched nerve. Some of these include:
Over-the-counter pain and anti-inflammatory medication
- Prescription pain relievers if the pain is severe
- Physical therapy
- Epidural steroid injections
- Hot/cold compresses
- Gentle stretching
- Low-impact exercise
As you progress through treatment for your pinched nerve, be sure to alert your physician to any worsening symptoms. Keeping open communication with your doctor is very important during pinched nerve treatment, as it will allow him or her to adjust your treatment plan to find a solution that best helps relieve your pain.
Alternative treatment for a pinched nerve
In addition to conservative treatment, many patients explore alternative methods of pinched nerve treatment on their own. These treatments are not considered to be mainstream, though many patients have found them effective in relieving their pinched nerve pain. Some examples of alternative treatments for a spinal pinched nerve include:
- Chiropractic manipulation
- Massage therapy
- Herbal supplements
Be sure to consult with your doctor before trying any alternative pinched nerve treatments on your own to ensure that they will not worsen your condition or negatively interact with any conservative treatments you may be trying.
Pinched nerve surgery
Patients whose symptoms persist despite several weeks or months of nonsurgical treatment may need to consider surgery to achieve lasting relief. If surgery does become an option, it is important to research the many surgical options available to you so you can choose a procedure that meets your needs and gives you the best chance of finding lasting relief from your symptoms. Traditional open spine surgery is one option, but these procedures typically require a hospital stay and lengthy recovery period that many busy individuals simply don’t have time to take on.
If you have been advised to consider pinched nerve surgery, reach out to the caring team at USA Spine Care for more information about the benefits of minimally invasive spine surgery compared to traditional open neck or back procedures.
The board-certified surgeons+ at USA Spine Care use muscle-sparing techniques to access the spine, resulting in an outpatient procedure with less risk of infection and complication, as well as shorter recovery times, compared to traditional open spine surgery.^ Since 2005 we have been able to help more than 75,000 patients find relief from their pain at our state-of-the-art outpatient surgery centers across the United States.
If you have questions about your pinched nerve treatment options or would like to know more about our minimally invasive spine surgery, contact USA Spine Care today. We are pleased to offer a free MRI review* to determine if you are a potential candidate for our procedures.
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