A pinched nerve (or compressed nerve) happens when tissue or bone presses against a nerve, causing symptoms like numbness and pain. Pinched nerves can happen in different parts of the body, but are most commonly diagnosed in the back and neck.
Symptoms depend on what nerve is pinched
Which pinched nerve symptoms you experience depends largely on what nerve is pinched. Pinched nerves along different parts of the spine result in different symptoms. Find out more below.
Don't let a pinched nerve go untreated
Compression on a nerve can cause nerve damage, depending on the intensity and duration of the pressure. This is why it is important to listen to your body and pay attention to your pain. Diagnosing and treating a pinched nerve is important to prevent chronic pain and permanent damage.
What is a pinched nerve?
Your nerves are bundles of fibers that transfer signals from your brain to other parts of your body.
Your nerves extend from your brain down your spinal cord, which runs through a channel shaped by the vertebrae in your spinal column. Nerve roots branch off the spinal cord, passing between each vertebra to your limbs and trunk.
Pinched nerves happen if surrounding tissues put pressure on these nerve roots or the nerves extending from them, disrupting their function and causing pain, tingling, and numbness.
You can have also experience pinched, or compressed, nerves in different parts of your body if tissue or bone presses up against a nerve.
Pinched nerves are the root cause of the following conditions:
- Radiculopathy. This is a general term that describes pinched nerves in the back. Cervical radiculopathy is a common cause of neck pain, while lumbar radiculopathy is a common cause of lower back pain.
- Sciatica. This condition is characterized by radiating leg pain. It happens when the sciatic nerve, which connects your legs and spinal cord, experiences a compression. Sciatica usually only affects one side of your body.
- Carpal tunnel. The carpal tunnel is a nerve pathway located at the base of your wrist. It is made up of bones and ligaments, and it houses the median nerve. If the ligaments that make up the carpal tunnel thicken and put pressure on the nerve, it can result in the nerve pain associated with carpal tunnel syndrome.
What are the symptoms of pinched nerves?
Pinched nerves along different parts of the spine result in different symptoms.
In the lower back
Symptoms of a pinched nerve in the lower back include:
- A sharp pain in the back that may travel to your foot. This pain may become worse with certain activities like sitting or coughing.
- Loss of reflexes in the lower part of your body.
- Numbness of the skin on the leg or foot, or the feeling that your foot has fallen asleep.
- Sciatica, which involves pain or muscle weakness in your lower back, hips, buttocks, legs, ankles, and feet.
In the neck
Symptoms of a pinched nerve in the neck include:
- A feeling of numbness or pins and needles in the arm.
- Cervical vertigo, or extreme disorientation and dizziness caused by a pinched cervical nerve.
- Sharp neck pain.
- Sharp pain in the arm.
- Shoulder pain (often, when people think they have pinched a nerve in their shoulder, they have actually pinched a nerve in their cervical spine).
- Weakness of the arm.
- Worsening pain when you move your neck or turn your head.
In the wrist
When a pinched nerve happens at the wrist, it causes carpal tunnel syndrome.
Get an expert diagnosis
Having these symptoms does not always mean you have a pinched nerve. Weakness and numbness in the limbs, especially the arms, may be symptoms of a life-threatening medical condition like a heart attack.
Be sure to talk to your doctor about your symptoms so that you can get the right diagnosis and treatment.
When to seek emergency medical care
In general, you should seek emergency care if:
- Your pain is sudden onset and severe.
- You have neck pain or back pain immediately following trauma, such as a car accident.
- Your pain, weakness, or tingling is accompanied by other symptoms, like jaw pain, chest/stomach pain, vomiting, shortness of breath, or fever.
How is a pinched nerve diagnosed?
If you are experiencing symptoms of a pinched nerve, talk to your healthcare provider. They will ask you about your medical history, current symptoms, and your hobbies or work. These can give clues about the cause of your pain. Your provider may also conduct a physical exam.
In addition, you may undergo one of the following imaging exams:
- X-ray. An x-ray uses high-energy beams to create a picture of your bones. Your doctor can examine these pictures for evidence of fractures or arthritis. However, X-rays don’t show soft tissues like muscles or tendons.
- CT scan. A CT scanner takes multiple X-ray images to create a cross-sectional view of the body. This can help your doctor see soft tissue damage, fractures, bone spurs, or other causes of a pinched nerve.
- MRI. Like an X-ray, an MRI creates a picture of your bones. Because MRIs also show soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments), they can help your provider pinpoint things like inflammation and ruptured discs.
- High-resolution ultrasounds. During an ultrasound, high-energy sound waves bounce off your tissues. The resulting echo produces an image on a screen. Ultrasounds can be used on specific parts of your body, like your wrist, to diagnose carpal tunnel syndrome.
Treating pinched nerves at home
In many cases, pinched nerves are temporary and can be treated at home. If you pinched a nerve while engaging in physical activity, stop and try the following:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, which reduce inflammation and help block pain.
- Ice, which reduces swelling.
- Rest until the pain or tingling is gone. Re-injury could lead to more damage.
Your healthcare provider may also recommend that you wear a splint on your wrist or a soft collar around your neck. These garments help relieve pressure on your nerves by providing support and structure. However, they are not permanent solutions and should only be worn for short periods.
Medical treatments for pinched nerves
If home remedies aren’t working, and your pinched nerve is interfering with your daily activities, you may need more advanced treatment. Your provider might recommend one or more of the following treatments for pinched nerves:
- Steroid injections. Corticosteroids are strong anti-inflammatory drugs that are injected near the space of your spine. They provide pain relief and reduce inflammation for up to two months, but they cannot be used long term. Corticosteroids can also be taken by mouth.
- Physical therapy. Your provider might prescribe physical therapy to help treat pinched nerves. Your physical therapist can teach you exercises and movement patterns that relieve pressure on your nerves, and strengthen surrounding muscles to prevent future pain.
- Chiropractic therapy. This therapy system helps treat and prevent disorders affecting muscles, joints, bones, and connective tissues. It often involves gentle spinal manipulation to relieve pinched nerves. It can help with sciatica, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other muscle and joint-related problems.
Usually, a minor pinched nerve that receives adequate treatment starts to feel better within a few days. For more severe pinched nerves, allow 4 to 12 weeks of non-surgical treatment for relief.
In many cases, surgery is not necessary to treat a pinched nerve. Home remedies or some combination of medication and therapy is usually enough to relieve nerve pain.
However, if conservative treatments aren’t working, your doctor may recommend surgery to help relieve pressure and prevent more permanent nerve damage. The exact method of surgery depends on where the pinched nerve is located.
- Bone spur removal and spinal fusion. Bone spurs and damaged discs are removed. The vertebrae are stabilized via spinal fusion, which involves using a bone graft and screws to attach it to a neighboring vertebrae.
- Artificial disc replacement. Injured discs that place pressure on the spinal nerve are removed and replaced with artificial materials that are less likely to slip.
- Carpal tunnel surgery. During surgery, the thickened ligament that causes problems is cut completely. When it grows back, it is less thick and no longer presses on the median nerve.
Your doctor may recommend other surgical procedures. Be sure to explore all of your options with your care team so that you can make the right decision for you.
Can a pinched nerve be prevented?
Not all cases of pinched nerves are preventable, but taking certain steps can reduce your risk of developing one:
- Avoid repetitive activities. Try to mix up your movements and take breaks whenever you can, especially if you work a job that involves repetitive motion.
- Maintain good posture. Consider trying a standing desk or ergonomic keyboard if you work an office job.
- Try light stretches to improve posture.
- Stay fit and active.
- Be safe when engaging in activities. If you feel pain, stop, rest, and use ice. Don’t return to activities until you have fully healed.
- Maintain a healthy weight to relieve pressure on your joints.