Pinched Nerve in Neck? Get Help Today!
Are you dealing with nagging pain because of a pinched nerve in the neck? If so, then you’re probably wondering how serious your condition is. And, of course, the best way to treat it…
There are many ways to relieve a pinched nerve in the neck and its related symptoms. (Luckily, most people with this type of neck condition don’t even require surgery.)
But, first, let’s take a look at what causes a pinched nerve in the neck. Then, we’ll shift our focus to what you can do to start feeling better.
What is a Pinched Nerve in Neck?
Cervical radiculopathy—the medical term for a pinched nerve in the neck—occurs when a nerve becomes irritated or compressed. Usually, this occurs where the nerve branches away from the spinal cord and passes through the spinal column.
How does this happen? We’ll explain by taking a closer look at the anatomy of the spine.
The spinal column is a series of bones that start at the base of your skull and end in the lower back. These bones are known as vertebrae. The spinal column houses the spinal cord—the main line of communication between your brain and the rest of your body. In addition, nerve roots branch out from the spinal cord and spread throughout the body. Furthermore, these nerve roots exit the spinal column through small openings in the vertebrae called the foramina.
The spinal column also contains round, flexible discs between each vertebra. These discs protect the spine by absorbing shock as you go about your daily routine. Each disc consists of a tough, outer layer and a soft, jelly-like center. In fact, problems with these discs are one of the main causes of a pinched nerve in the neck.
But, we’ll get to that soon.
Seven vertebrae make up the part of your spine that forms the neck. This section is called the cervical spine. It connects your head with the rest of your body. In addition, the cervical spine is responsible for initiating head and neck movement.
Compared to other areas of the body, there is not much muscle to help protect the cervical spine. Given the fact that your neck is supporting your head—which can weigh as much as a bowling ball—it’s not surprising that the neck is so vulnerable to injuries.
What Causes a Pinched Nerve in the Neck?
Changes in the spinal structure can compress or irritate nearby nerve roots. This can occur because of degenerative changes that transpire as we age as well as a sudden injury or trauma.
Common causes of a pinched nerve in the neck include:
Degenerative Changes in the Cervical Spine
As we age, our intervertebral discs begin to dry out and lose their shape. Sometimes, the discs will even collapse, reducing the space between adjacent vertebrae. As such, the body tries to compensate for this loss by forming more bone.
Osteophytes—otherwise known as bone spurs—begin to form around the damaged disc. Sometimes the bone spurs narrow the foramina, affording even less space for the nerve roots. In medical terms, this condition is known as cervical foraminal stenosis.
In addition, those who suffer from cervical osteoarthritis may also develop bone spurs.
Cervical Herniated Disc
As mentioned previously, intervertebral discs consist of a soft, jelly-like center enclosed by a tough, outer ring. Sometimes this inner layer breaks through the outer layer because of an injury, trauma, or degenerative disc disease. When this occurs, the herniated disc can press on a nearby nerve.
Other Causes of Cervical Pinched Nerves
Some less common causes of a pinched nerve in the neck include:
- Tumors. Cancerous or benign tumors may grow near a nerve and eventually cause compression or irritation.
- Fractures. Cervical spine fractures can cause the area to become unstable or narrow the foramina.
- Spondylolisthesis. A condition in which the joints, bones, and soft tissues weaken and cause one vertebra to slip forward over another. This, of course, causes structural changes in the cervical spine.
- Spinal infections. Infections to the spine can cause inflammation. As a result, this swelling may irritate or damage adjacent nerve roots.
What Does a Pinched Nerve in the Neck Feel Like?
The symptoms of cervical radiculopathy will vary from person to person. Much of your symptoms will depend on which nerve root is pinched and how severely it is damaged.
The most common symptoms of a pinched nerve in the neck include:
- Radiating neck pain. Pain can be dull and achy or sharp and burning. Some people may experience shock-like pain. Oftentimes, pain can be felt in the neck, shoulder, arm, and even hand. In most cases, the pain is felt on only one side of the body.
- Numbness. A “pins and needles” feeling or loss of sensation may be felt in the neck, shoulder, arm, hand, or fingers.
- Muscle weakness. Damage to the nerve root may cause weakness in the muscles of the shoulder, arm, or hand.
- Changes in reflexes. Nerve damage may also affect the body’s reflexes, such as a diminished response when the elbow is tapped during a physical exam.
Certain movements and positions may increase or decrease pain. For example, a person may experience relief when placing the hands on top of the head. Conversely, pain may increase after using a mobile device for a long time.
How to Find Out You Have a Pinched Nerve in the Neck
In many cases, a visit to your doctor can determine the cause of your neck pain and other symptoms. During your visit, the doctor will review your medical history including any previous or recent illnesses and injuries. Also, questions about your family history and lifestyle will be asked.
During the physical exam, your doctor checks for any abnormalities and tenderness in your neck. This often includes physical tests to assess your range of motion, strength, sensation, and reflexes. Your doctor may also use the Spurling’s test to examine whether light compressions on the cervical spine can recreate your pain. Don’t worry: The pain will be minimal and only temporary.
Depending on your situation, other diagnostic tests may be ordered such as an MRI or CT scan. Furthermore, electrodiagnostic testing can enable your doctor to achieve a better idea of how your nerves are currently functioning.
Getting Relief from Your Pinched Nerve in the Neck
Sometimes a simple turn of the head can be a painful reminder that something is not right in your neck. Of course, this can really affect the quality of your life. In fact, you probably don’t even think about how much you use your neck until you start feeling pain.
So what can you do to alleviate pinched nerve symptoms?
Luckily, conservative treatments may be all you need to relieve your pain. Many helpful options are available, such as:
Nonsurgical Pinched Nerve Treatments
- Rest. Taking a break from strenuous activities like heavy lifting and sports may give the area a chance to heal.
- Hot or cold therapy. Some people benefit from short periods of applying ice or heat packs to the neck. It may help to use ice packs in particular after a painful flare-up. In contrast, using a heating pad can stimulate the healing process by bringing more blood flow to the area. Try these therapies for up to 20 minutes then take a break for 2 hours.
- Activity modification. Being more mindful of your posture and movements during activities or at work can also reduce painful flare-ups.
- Physical therapy. If you are unsure of how to modify your activities, a physical therapist can guide you to utilize improved posture and ergonomics. A physical therapist can also prescribe specific exercises to help relieve pain and strengthen the area.
- Manual manipulation. This may be performed by a chiropractor or a physical therapist. The goal of manual manipulation is to adjust the cervical spine, thus enhancing mobility and allowing the area to heal.
- Soft cervical collar. Using a cervical collar for short periods can help rest and limit movement in the neck.
- Medications. Over-the-counter medications like NSAIDs (ibuprofen, aspirin, etc.) can ease nerve irritation or inflammation. In more severe cases, narcotic medications may be prescribed. Always use narcotics exactly as directed as they may be habit-forming.
- Steroid injections. Directly injecting steroid medications into the irritated nerve can reduce swelling and pain long enough for the pinched nerve to heal.
When does a pinched nerve in the neck need surgery?
If the pinched nerve treatments above do not seem to be helping, it may be time to meet with an orthopedic surgeon. Another indicator for surgery is worsening neurological symptoms like numbness or weakness in the arms and hands.
The goals of surgery for a pinched nerve in the neck include reducing pain, improving the stability and alignment of the spine, and preserving range of motion.
For instance, three common surgeries to treat a pinched nerve in the neck include:
- Anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF). This is one of the most common procedures for a troublesome pinched nerve in the neck. During ACDF, the surgeon removes the damaged disc and replaces it with a bone graft or other surgical hardware. In time, the affected vertebrae fuse together to increase spinal stability.
- Artificial disc replacement. The surgeon may choose to remove the damaged disc then replace it with an artificial one. This may lead to more neck flexibility when compared to a spinal fusion.
- Posterior cervical laminoforaminotomy. During this procedure, the surgeon uses tiny surgical equipment to remove pieces of bones, bone spurs, and other tissues causing the pinched nerve.
Pinched Nerve Surgery Recovery Time
Your recovery will ultimately depend on your condition and willingness to complete rehabilitation. Thanks to medical technology, many of these surgeries are minimally invasive. This means smaller incisions, reduced blood loss and damage to surrounding tissues, and less postoperative pain.
During recovery, you may need to wear a soft or rigid cervical collar. In most cases, you need to limit your activities. As you recover, physical therapy can assist you to strengthen the area and restore range of motion.
When can you return to your normal life?
If you have a job that doesn’t require much physical activity, you could be back in as little as a few days to a few weeks. Being cleared for full activities may take up to four months—sometimes even longer depending on how well you heal.
Ready to Get Help for Your Pinched Nerve?
A pinched nerve in the neck can disrupt the way you live your life. So where can you turn when you want to get back to doing the things you love?
The Advanced Spine Center consists of a multidisciplinary team that specializes in both conservative and surgical treatments for your pinched nerve and other spinal conditions. Our doctors want to provide you with the best care possible. This means creating a treatment plan based on your condition and treatment goals. We take the time to listen to you, answer your questions, and address any fears you have before starting any treatments.
Schedule a consultation today and get back to doing the things you love!