Pinched Nerve

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Introduction

What is a pinched nerve?

A pinched nerve is an injury to a nerve or group of nerves resulting from compression, entrapment or stretching. Numbness, tingling, burning or pain can result. In some cases, muscle weakness can also occur. Symptoms of a pinched nerve may develop gradually or can come on suddenly.

Nerves can be compressed as they leave the spine; when they pass over bony prominences, through muscles, or under ligaments; or as a result of trauma. Sciatica and carpal tunnel syndrome are two commonly recognized syndromes associated with pinched nerves, although pinched nerves can occur in many locations.

Causes of pinched nerves include herniated (slipped) discs in the neck or spine; degenerative disc disease; stenosis (narrowing) of the spinal canal; repetitive use injuries; bone spurs or fractures; and inflammation around, or irritation of, nerves.

Treatment usually involves rest of the affected nerve. Physical therapy, splinting, over-the-counter pain medications, and steroid injections may be helpful. In some cases, surgery may be done to relieve entrapment or alleviate compression of the nerve.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for severe, debilitating pain or for trauma that results in significant pain, loss or alteration of sensation, incontinence of urine or feces, or blood in the urine.

Seek prompt medical care if you notice persistent numbness, tingling, or other sensory changes in an area; if you develop progressive weakness or notice muscle wasting in an area; or if you develop incontinence, have pain that disrupts your sleep, or symptoms that don't respond to rest or over-the-counter pain medications.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of a pinched nerve?

Symptoms of a pinched nerve depend upon the location, but typically involve alterations in sensation such a pain or numbness and may involve weakness.

Common symptoms of a pinched nerve

Common pinched nerve symptoms are typically localized to one area, which can be large, radiating down the entire leg or arm, or small, depending upon where the nerve is compressed. Symptoms may include:

  • Body aches
  • Burning feeling
  • Change in symptoms based on body position
  • Fecal incontinence (inability to control stools)
  • Impaired balance and coordination
  • Muscle wasting
  • Numbness or tingling in arms or legs
  • Pain
  • Urinary incontinence (inability to control urination)
  • Weakness (loss of strength)

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

Pinched nerves can have permanent complications. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms of a pinched nerve associated with any of these symptoms:

  • Absent or diminished pulse
  • Fecal incontinence (inability to control stools)
  • Impaired balance and coordination
  • Prolonged numbness or tingling that don't improve with rest
  • Severe pain
  • Urinary incontinence (inability to control urination)

Causes

What causes a pinched nerve?

Anything that compresses, entraps or stretches a nerve or group of nerves can cause a pinched nerve. This can include pressure on a nerve from a bulging or herniated disc in the back, broken bones or bone spurs, or inflammation or swelling of nearby structures. Certain body positions can stretch nerves or put pressure on them. Cystic growths or tumors can also press on nerves.

Common causes of pinched nerve

A number of conditions can cause a pinched nerve including:

  • Arthritis

  • Benign or malignant tumors of nerves, soft tissue, or other structures

  • Bone spurs, cysts or tumors

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome

  • Degenerative disc disease (caused by wear and tear and the effects of aging on the spine)

  • Fracture of bone

  • Repetitive use injuries

  • Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal, creating pressure on the spinal cord or nerves)

  • Trauma or injury

What are the risk factors for a pinched nerve?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing a pinched nerve. Not all people with risk factors will get a pinched nerve. Risk factors for a pinched nerve include:

  • Obesity

  • Occupational activities that put the individual at risk for pinched nerve

  • Poor posture

  • Pregnancy

  • Prior injuries such as fractures or repetitive use injuries

  • Sports injuries

Reducing your risk of a pinched nerve

You may be able to lower your risk of pinched nerve by:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight

  • Observing good posture

  • Using an ergonomically correct workstation

  • Using protective equipment to reduce the risk of injury while playing sports or exercising

Treatments

How is a pinched nerve treated?

Treatment of a pinched nerve often begins with rest and use of over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, if needed. When these actions fail to improve your symptoms, splinting, steroid injections, and physical therapy might be helpful. In some circumstances, surgery may be needed to treat nerve entrapment or compression.

Common treatments of a pinched nerve

Common treatments of a pinched nerve may include:

  • Application of ice or heat

  • Evaluation of workstation functionality or athletic form to see if improvements can be made

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxyn (Aleve, Naprosyn), and indomethacin (Indocin)

  • Occupational therapy to improve posture

  • Physical therapy to improve strength or functional ability

  • Splinting of a joint involved in a pinched nerve syndrome

  • Steroid injections or oral steroid medications to reduce inflammation

  • Surgery to alleviate pressure or release entrapped nerves

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help some people in their efforts to deal with a pinched nerve. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Biofeedback

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

What are the potential complications of pinched nerve?

Complications of untreated pinched nerves can be serious. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of pinched nerve include:

  • Decreased athletic performance

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Inability to participate normally in activities

  • Inability to perform daily tasks

  • Loss of strength

  • Permanent loss of sensation

  • Permanent muscle wasting

  • Permanent nerve damage, including paralysis

  • Physical disability

  • Severe discomfort or pain

  • Urinary or fecal incontinence (inability to control urine or stool)

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jan 5
  1. Carpal tunnel syndrome. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001469/.
  2. Sciatica. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001706/
  3. Hobson-Webb LD, Juel VC. The three dimensional assessment of peripheral nerve injury: an integrated clinical, neurophysiologic and sonographic approach. Clin Neurophysiol 2013; 124:1053.
  4. Martínez de Albornoz P, Delgado PJ, Forriol F, Maffulli N. Non-surgical therapies for peripheral nerve injury. Br Med Bull 2011; 100:73.
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