Doctor of Chiropractic, Dr. Alexander Jimenez breaks down how pinched nerves cause back and neck pain.
You hear people say it a lot:
â€œI have a pinched nerve, and wow, it hurts.â€
But what exactly is a pinched nerve? How does it cause back pain or neck pain? What are the symptoms of a pinched nerveâ€”beyond pain? And most importantly, what can you do about a pinched nerve? Learn the basics of pinched nerves here.
Pinched Nerves: A Common Cause of Back &Â Neck Pain
What Is A Nerve?
Nerves are your bodyâ€™s messengers. They transport signals to and from your brainâ€”messages like â€œMove this toeâ€ or â€œOuch, that cactus needle really is sharp.â€ You have a central nervous system, which is made up of your brain and spinal cord. You also have a peripheral nervous system, which is the system of nerves that branches off the brain and spinal cord.
What Do Nerves Look Like?
If it helps, think of nerves like a garden hose (except they arenâ€™t green). They have an outside membrane that transports those electrical messages. Inside nerves, thereâ€™s a fluid that nourishes and replenishes the outer membrane.
Youâ€™re Getting on My Nerves
When a nerve gets pinched, the messages and the nourishing fluid donâ€™t flow quite as well as they should (still helpful to think of a garden hose here). A pinched nerve can start sending the â€œOw, painâ€ message to the brain, and it can also have trouble communicating clear messages, possibly leading to weakness, numbness, or tingling.
What Can Pinch a Nerve?
As a nerve exits the spinal canal, it can be pinched by a herniated disc or a bone spur. Bone spurs, also known as osteophytes, are bony bumps that can develop on a spinal joint over time. They can push into the spinal nerve, as you can see in this illustration (red = pain generator, of course).
What Does a Pinched Nerve Feel Like?
A pinched nerve mostly feels like pain. If you have a pinched nerve in your low back, it can cause pain to travel (or radiate, in doctor-speak) down your leg. You may also know that as sciatica. A pinched nerve in the neck can create pain that shoots down your arm. Other symptoms of pinched nerves include muscle spasms, burning, tingling, and a hot/cold sensation.
Now the Good Stuff: Pinched Nerve Treatments
Pinched nerve treatments fall into two categories: what you can do at home (self-care) and what your doctor may prescribe for you.
Pinched Nerve Self-care #1: Heat and Ice
Heat and ice can work wonders on a pinched nerve. Switch between 20 minutes of heat and 20 minutes of iceâ€”and remember that you shouldnâ€™t put the heat and ice packs directly on your skin.
Pinched Nerve Self-care #2: Get a Massage
The muscles around a pinched nerve can become tight, so having a professional massage therapist work the painful area can bring pain relief. You may also consider a handheld massager.
Pinched Nerve Self-care #3: Take a Walk
Letâ€™s say itâ€™s your low backâ€”a pinched nerve in your low backâ€”thatâ€™s hurting you. A nice, easy stroll is a good way to stay active and address your pain. Gone are the days of extended bed rest for back pain: doctors now are more likely to recommend you exercise and stretch to help relieve your pain.
When Should You Call a Doctor?
If you try the self-care thing and yet your pinched nerve pain persists, you should consider calling the doctor. If youâ€™ve been in pain for more than a couple of days, schedule an appointment. You should also call the doctor if you experience a very sudden onset of weakness, or if you experience profound numbness. Losing bowel and/or bladder control is also a good reason to call the doctor.
How a Doctor Treats a Pinched Nerve
The doctor will try to diagnose the cause of your pinched nerve, and then the doctor will be able to develop a treatment plan. That plan may include prescription pain medications, physical therapy, or cortisone injections. But keep this in mind: the treatment plan will be specifically tailored for you, and itâ€™s in your best interest to follow it closely.
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The information herein on "A Pinched Nerve" is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional, or licensed physician, and is not medical advice. We encourage you to make your own healthcare decisions based on your research and partnership with a qualified healthcare professional.
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Dr. Alex Jimenez DC, MSACP, CCST, IFMCP*, CIFM*, ATN*
Licensed in: Texas & New Mexico*
Dr. Alex Jimenez DC, MSACP, CIFM*, IFMCP*, ATN*, CCST
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