What is spinal nerve compression? The spinal cord contains 31 pairs of nerves that provide sensation and movement to various regions of the body. These large nerves branch off from the spinal cord and exit the spinal canal through small openings in the bony vertebrae that make up the spinal column (backbone). Many conditions can cause this opening to become narrow resulting in spinal nerve compression, also called a pinched spinal nerve. A pinched nerve in the neck (cervical radiculopathy) is a common cause of pain and stiffness, but spinal nerve compression can occur anywhere along the spine, from the top (cervical spine) to the bottom (sacrum). Often, spinal nerve compression represents an annoyance more than a health threat, but an untreated pinched nerve in the spine could lead to chronic pain or muscle weakness. Any person can develop a pinched spinal nerve, but certain activities and occupations that strain the back raise your risk, such as spinal arthritis. Spinal nerve compression symptoms often include pain, tingling or numbness, but other conditions also can cause these symptoms. If you experience any nerve-related symptoms, see a doctor to obtain an accurate diagnosis and begin treatment as early as possible. A compressed spinal nerve often responds well to conservative treatments, but without treatment the nerve can suffer irreversible damage and loss of function becomes permanent. This can reduce sensation and impair bodily responses that rely on that nerve’s function. Complications of spinal nerve compression depend on the specific nerve being compressed. For example, if the nerve that controls bladder function becomes compressed, you might be unable to control urination. In severe cases of spinal nerve compression, treatment may involve surgery to decompress the nerve before it becomes seriously damaged. What are the symptoms of spinal nerve compression? Spinal nerve compression symptoms resemble those of many other nerve-related conditions. You should get an expert opinion on the cause of your nerve symptoms to receive the most appropriate treatment. Many types of doctors can perform a physical evaluation, but a neurologist specializes in diagnosing and treating conditions involving the nervous system. Common symptoms of spinal nerve compression A pinched nerve in the spine causes symptoms that may include: Inability to fully control bladder or bowel functions including urine retention Inability to achieve or sustain an erection Mild to moderate discomfort anywhere along the spine or the extremities including burning or radiating pain that extends down the arms or legs Muscle weakness, particularly in the arms and legs, or stiffness, especially in the neck Numbness, tingling, or other abnormal sensation (paresthesia) Severe pain that radiates (moves) down the left arm or is concentrated in the upper back can signal a heart attack, not a pinched nerve in the spine. You should call 911 if you have any of the symptoms of a heart attack including: Chest pain, discomfort, fullness or pressure Difficulty breathing Dizziness or lightheadedness Pain in the shoulders, neck, jaw, or upper back Unusual heartbeat or palpitations What causes spinal nerve compression? A pinched spinal nerve occurs because of pressure on the nerve where it exits the spinal canal. Any situation that puts pressure on a spinal nerve can cause nerve compression. Causes include: Structural abnormalities of the spine including bone spurs and other problems caused by such conditions as degenerative disc disease and spinal arthritis Herniated disc Traumatic back injuries including spinal fracture and injuries causing local inflammation and irritation around a spinal nerve (or the nerve itself) Spinal tumor Bleeding and infection within the spinal canal Trauma can cause sudden, severe spinal nerve compression or even spinal cord compression that results in paralysis, while arthritis of the spine can cause a gradual narrowing of the vertebral opening that brings symptoms on slowly, over the course of many years. This is spinal stenosis. Spinal nerve compression and the symptoms it causes may be temporary, persistent, or come and go with time. What are the risk factors for spinal nerve compression? Common risk factors for a pinched spinal nerve include: Activities or occupations that chronically place a high degree of stress on the spinal column, including contact sports, jobs that require lots of bending and heavy lifting, professions like ballet that frequently twist the spine, or occupations that expose you to falling Spinal arthritis or bone spurs due to normal aging or more intensive wear and tear on the spine Inflammation due to ankylosing spondylitis or another disease that affects the bones and joints Scoliosis or other abnormal spinal alignments Tumors of the spine Reducing your risk of spinal nerve compression Some people have a genetic predisposition to developing spinal arthritis and other underlying causes of spinal nerve compression. Still, there are ways to reduce your risk and protect your spine including: Avoiding activities that regularly stress your spinal column Exercising regularly to keep your core and back muscles strong to promote good spinal alignment Maintaining a healthy weight, as carrying abdominal fat can pull the spine out of alignment Observing safe lifting practices and body mechanics Using safety equipment when climbing, whether for recreation or for job purposes How is spinal nerve compression treated? For a pinched spinal nerve, conservative, noninvasive treatment is typically the first choice. Your specific treatment options will depend on the exact location of nerve compression and the severity of symptoms you are experiencing. The goal of spinal nerve compression treatment is to relieve pressure on the nerve, which will reduce symptoms and avoid permanent nerve damage. In general, spinal nerve compression treatment may include: Braces or assistive devices to maintain good spinal alignment Comfort measures like applying ice or heat to the affected area, getting massages, or taking a hot shower to relieve discomfort Medicines to reduce inflammation including corticosteroid injections and oral anti-inflammatory medicines Maintaining good body mechanics, such as using an ergonomically supportive office chair or buying a firm mattress that supports your spine Physical therapy to strengthen muscles and improve posture Spinal decompression surgery, which may remove portions of bone (laminectomy) or disc material (discectomy) to widen the opening through which the compressed spinal nerve passes. In some cases, a metal cage or screws may be placed to hold the vertebrae in alignment. The extent of the surgery will depend on the location and severity of the spinal compression. What are the potential complications of spinal nerve compression? Rarely, spinal nerve compression can lead to cauda equina syndrome, a condition requiring immediate medical attention. Call 911 or go to the emergency room if you experience: Severe pain or weakness that makes it difficult or impossible to control your legs, walk or rise from a chair Sudden inability to control your bladder or bowels Sudden or increasing numbness or tingling of your upper legs or groin area Compressed spinal nerves often respond well to conservative treatments and do not cause lingering complications. However, you should always see a doctor for an evaluation of nerve symptoms that may related to the spinal cord, or that you suspect may be related. Your doctor can rule out more serious causes and start you on a treatment plant quickly to relieve any pain or muscle weakness.