7 Things to Know About Radiculopathy

  • doctor showing her older male patient his low back scan on a digital tablet
    Facts About Radiculopathy and Nerve Root Compression
    Radiculopathy by definition is a pinched nerve anywhere along your spine. You may also hear doctors call it nerve root compression. The pinched nerve can cause severe pain, numbness or weakness, or it can be just an annoying ache now and then. The symptoms can come on quickly, as the result of a trauma perhaps, or slowly if there is a mass or buildup of fluid or body tissue pressing on the nerve. Find out what causes radiculopathy, how it can be treated, its symptoms, and more.
  • Normal neck bones, 3D CT scan
    1. There are three types of radiculopathies.
    There are three types of radiculopathies that can occur along your spine. Cervical radiculopathy refers to a pinched nerve in your neck, or cervical spine. Thoracic radiculopathies affect your upper back, or thoracic spine. Lumbar radiculopathies refer to pinched nerves in the lower or lumbar region of your back. These most commonly cause sciatic nerve pain, which can go down your buttock to your leg. Radiculopathy may come on suddenly or gradually, and may last a few weeks to months.
  • neck and shoulder pain, old woman suffering from neck and shoulder injury, health problem concept
    2. Radiculopathies are more than just painful.
    The main symptom of a radiculopathy is a sharp pain radiating from the pinched nerve to the associated body part. For example, a pinched nerve in the neck can cause your arm to hurt. A pinched nerve in the lower back can cause sciatica. But, these pinched nerves can also cause numbness and weakening all the way down to the hand or foot, which may become permanent. Cervical radiculopathy can affect how well you can control your bowels or bladder too. Always seek professional medical care for symptoms of a pinched nerve.
  • tension in spine
    3. Anything that can press on a nerve can cause radiculopathy.
    Aging and degenerative changes in your body are the most common cause of pinched nerves, particularly cervical radiculopathy, but there are other causes too. They include a herniated disc, trauma to the spinal area, tumor, bone spurs, infection, or narrowing of the spinal canal. Children can also develop radiculopathy. Unlike adults who usually have the pinched nerve in one focus area, children tend to have them over a broader area.
  • Lower back MRI scan with gloved physician's hand & pencil
    4. An accurate radiculopathy diagnosis is important for recovery.
    You and your doctor need to know the extent of compression and possible nerve damage to plan an effective treatment to relieve your symptoms and correct the underlying problem if possible. Tests doctors use to diagnose radiculopathy include X-rays, more advanced imaging tests like CT and MRI, and studies of the nerves and the muscles they contact—a test known as electromyography.
  • Older woman in physical therapy
    5. Nonsurgical radiculopathy treatments are often successful.
    Oftentimes, doctors prefer to start with nonsurgical treatments for radiculopathies. They usually include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to help reduce inflammation around the pinched nerve. However, medication alone won’t solve the underlying problem. You may also need physical therapy and exercises to help release the nerve. If you are overweight, your doctor may suggest a weight loss plan to take pressure off the nerve. If these approaches don’t relieve your radiculopathy symptoms, your doctor may opt for a steroid injection (anti-inflammatory medicine) into the nerve root, particularly if it’s in the lumbar area and you find it hard to walk.

    Reducing inflammation and pain can help you participate in physical therapy, which can treat the underlying problem in some cases.
  • doctor with stethoscope around neck holding model of lumbar spine pointing to nerve root between vertebrae
    6. Surgical radiculopathy treatments may work if nonsurgical ones don’t.
    Your doctor may refer you to a neurosurgeon to help relieve the pinched nerve if nonsurgical approaches are not successful. There are several procedures surgeons use to decompress spinal nerve roots. The specific operation depends on the location and cause of the pinched nerve. For example, the most common surgery for a cervical radiculopathy is anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF). The surgeon stabilizes the neck and creates more space for the nerve. Another option is spinal fusion, where the surgeon fuses the vertebrae around the nerve into one solid piece so it can’t press onto the nerve.
  • Older African American male patient holding throat and talking to male Caucasian doctor
    7. There are some possible complications to radiculopathy surgery.
    All surgical procedures have some risk of complications. If you opt for radiculopathy surgery, ask your doctor about possible complications and whether the benefits of surgery (for you specifically) outweigh the risks. They are not common, but complications include infection, bleeding, injury to the nerve, and a reaction to the anesthetic. Ask your doctor about his or her success rate with the surgery, as well as patient care at the hospital or surgery center where you’ll have the surgery. Talk about other issues as well, like postoperative pain control and what to do if the surgery does not relieve your pain in the long run.
7 Things to Know About Radiculopathy

About The Author

Marijke Vroomen Durning, RN, has been writing health information for the past 20 years. She has extensive experience writing about health issues like sepsis, cancer, mental health issues, and women’s health. She is also author of the book Just the Right Dose: Your Smart Guide to Prescription Medications and How to Take Them Safely.
  1. Neuro Spine Care for Kids. Children’s of Atlanta. https://www.choa.org/~/media/files/Childrens/medical-professionals/physician-resources/neurosciences-referrals/neurospinecareforkids.pdf?la=en
  2. Acute Radiculopathies. Columbia University Department of Neurology. https://www.columbianeurology.org/neurology/staywell/document.php?id=41917
  3. Radiculopathy. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Lumbar Radiculopathy (Nerve Root Compression). https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/radiculopathy
  4. Lumbar Radiculopathy (Nerve Root Compression). Emory Healthcare. https://www.emoryhealthcare.org/orthopedics/lumbar-radiculopathy.html
  5. Cervical Radiculopathy (Pinched Nerve). OrthoInfo. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/cervical-radiculopathy-pinched-nerve/
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 May 18
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