How Radiculopathy Differs from Other Types of Pain

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Older African American businessman standing at desk with back pain
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The term radiculopathy refers to a pinched nerve root somewhere along the length of your spine. The ‘root’ is the base area of the nerve where it branches off of the spinal cord. The pressure on the nerve root can interfere with motor (motion) and sensory (feeling) functions of the nerve. This pressure can cause radiating pain, weakness and numbness in the area related to the affected part of the spine. Sciatica is a well-known type of radiculopathy pain. Anyone who has experienced it knows how different sciatica is from inflammation of peripheral nerves or the muscles they supply.

Radiculopathy, Myelopathy, Neuropathy and Other Related Terms

Medical terms can seem confusing, especially since they can be closely related and sound the same. The first part of these words means something unique, but they all end with ‘pathy,’ which means disease or suffering. Here are some of the more common terms to use when discussing nerve pain:

  • Radiculopathy: A pinched nerve root, perhaps in your neck or lower back, where the nerve moves outward from the spine. For example, cervical radiculopathy can cause pain, numbness and/or weakness to move down your arm, even into your hand and fingers.
  • Nerve root compression: The definition of radiculopathy.
  • Pinched nerve: Caused by pressure on a nerve—beyond the root—by surrounding body tissue, such as muscles, tendons, even bones. Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by ‘pinching’ of the median nerve in your arm by a ligament in your wrist.
  • Myelopathy: Loss of function in a certain part of your body from spinal cord compression, oftentimes caused by spinal stenosis. Using the cervical spine example, cervical myelopathy could cause weakness in your arms and hands, but it can also affect the lower part of your body, including bowel and bladder function. Numbness and tingling and clumsy movements are more common than pain. Surgery is often necessary to prevent permanent loss of function.
  • Neuropathy: Damage or disease of peripheral nerves. These are the nerves that branch out far from the nerve roots. Left untreated, carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition that can lead to neuropathy of the median nerve. Diabetes is another common cause of peripheral neuropathy. People describe this type of pain as burning or stabbing, a pins-and-needles type of pain.

Types of Radiculopathy

There are three types of radiculopathy defined by the area of the spine affected. They can be caused by degenerative changes to the body as you age, a herniated disc, or by a trauma that puts pressure or force on the nerve. Radiculopathy may also be caused by bone spurs, narrowing of the spinal canal, infections and tumors.

  • Cervical radiculopathy affects a nerve root in your neck. There are seven vertebrae (C1-C7) and eight nerve roots in the cervical spine. Nerve root compression may be painless or cause a wide range of pain, sometimes excruciating. The pain follows the distribution area of the affected nerve root. For example, compression of the nerve root at C4 may cause neck pain radiating into the upper back; whereas, C5 compression causes pain in the chest muscles and down the front of the arm.
  • Lumbar radiculopathy affects the lower part of your back, the lumbar region. There are five lumbar vertebrae and nerve roots. If you have sciatica, this is usually caused by a pinched nerve root between L4 and L5 in your lower back.
  • Thoracic radiculopathy results from a pinched nerve in the upper part of your back—the thoracic region. There are 12 thoracic vertebrae and nerve roots. Most often, thoracic radiculopathy causes pain and numbness around from the back to the front, chest area.

Radiculopathy Effects on Your Body

Radiculopathy generally causes a sharp pain in the part of the body affected by the pinched nerve root. The pain may be constant or it can worsen. If you are experiencing sciatica, certain movements while walking or sitting can increase the pain. Cervical and thoracic radiculopathy may be worsened even by simple acts like coughing or sneezing.

Aside from the pain, depending on how badly the nerve root pinched, you could also feel numbness and tingling, or a loss of reflexes. Loss of motor nerve function from radiculopathy can result in limb weakness and muscle atrophy. Radiculopathy (and myelopathy) may affect your ability to control your bladder and bowels.

Radiculopathy is quite common. If you are experiencing pain that could be caused by a pinched nerve, speak with your doctor about a diagnosis and treatment options that may be right for you.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 May 18
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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