Pins and needles, tingling, pain, numbness, weakness. No matter how you describe it, the feeling of a nerve that has been pinched, compressed, constricted or stretched is – in a word – uncomfortable. One of the most common examples of a single compressed nerve is the feeling that a foot or hand has “fallen asleep.” But pinched nerves can occur anywhere in the body. A compressed nerve in the lower spine can cause pain to radiate down the back of the leg, a condition called sciatica. A pinched nerve in the neck or lower back could be caused by a herniated disk, arthritis, bone spurs or narrowing of the spinal canal.
There usually is no lasting injury when a nerve is pinched for a short period of time. However, chronic pain and permanent damage may occur if the pressure continues.
A pinched nerve can occur because of:
Several tests may be performed if the suspected cause of pain is a pinched nerve. A nerve conduction test involves placing electrodes on the skin and stimulating the nerve with a mild electrical shock. Electromyography requires putting a thin needle electrode into a muscle to record electrical activity. Magnetic resonance imaging also can be done to create cross-sectional views of the body, especially if there may be nerve root compression in the spine.
Rest for the affected area is the most commonly recommended treatment for a pinched nerve. In addition, all activities that may cause or aggravate the compression should be stopped. A splint or brace can be used to help immobilize the area. For pinched nerves in the neck, a soft collar could be worn to allow muscles to rest and limit neck motion.
Physical therapy may be necessary to teach patients how to strengthen and stretch muscles in the affected area in order to lessen pressure on the nerve. Non-steroidal medications, including ibuprofen and naproxen, can be prescribed to help alleviate pain and ease pressure around the nerve. Steroid injections also can be given to lessen swelling and relieve pain for affected nerves in the spine.
Surgery may be necessary if these conservative treatments do not relieve pain and pressure after several weeks to a few months. The type of surgery will depend on the location of the affected nerve. A pinched nerve in the neck or lower back, for example, may require the removal of part of a disc or bone spur that is pushing on the spinal nerve.
Pinched nerves may be prevented through good posture, limiting repetitive activities, maintaining a healthy weight, and incorporating strength and flexibility exercises in a work-out program.