“A pinched nerve occurs when too much pressure is applied to a nerve by surrounding tissues, such as bones, cartilage, muscles or tendons.” ~ Mayo Clinic
Yeah. Pinched back nerves are often very painful. If you’ve ever had the displeasure of having one, you can probably relate.
A pinched nerve occurs when there’s an excessive amount of pressure on a nerve surrounding our tissues; including the bones, cartilage, muscles or tendons. This pressure is disruptive to nerve function, resulting in feelings of pain, numbness and/or weakness, and tingling (“pins and needles.”)
Spinal nerves are the most susceptible to pinching. Part of the reason is that these nerves extend to so many areas of the body; hence, when the nerve pinches, the pain can radiate along the nerve and spread to other body parts.
For example, nerves exiting the cervical area of the back extend to the arms, hands, and fingers. When this nerve is compressed, pain is felt in those areas.
Causes of a pinched nerve
Stephanie Burke, CEO of Spine-health, cites the top three causes of pinched nerves:
– Herniated disks: “Injury or weakness can cause the inner portion of (a) disk to protrude through the outer ring (of the spine.)”
– Spinal Stenosis: “a narrowing of the bone channel occupied by the spinal nerves or the spinal cord.”
– Bone Spurs: “an enlargement of the normal bone (structures).”
Rarely, other conditions – such as infection, tumor, or a slipped vertebra may cause nerves to pinch.
Sensory and motor nerves
There are two main types of nerve fibers, sensory and motor. As such, when a nerve is compressed, one or both functions may be affected. Further, the severity of compression on the nerve will dictate the degree in which symptoms are felt.
Sensory nerves transmit signals from a part of the body to the spine. Motor nerves originate in the brain and are transmitted via the spine. Distinguishing between the two nerve types is key to understanding the symptoms of a pinched nerve.
5 Signs of a Pinched Nerve
Now that we have an idea of what constitutes a pinched nerve, what potentially causes it, and the difference between sensory and motor nerves, let’s take a look at some of the potential signs of the condition.
1. Dull Sensation/Numbness
When one of the sensory nerves of the back is pinched, the strength of signal is adversely affected. This impairs normal sensory perception, which can be felt as a dulling or numbing sensation.
For example, a pinched sensory nerve in the cervical or thoracic areas may lead to numbness in the arms, fingers, or hands.
2. Impaired Motor Coordination
Many of the routine things we do – typing, writing, walking, etc. – are taken for granted. However, these actions would not be possible without proper motor coordination.
When motor nerves are pinched, the brain can not accurately perceive feedback. Given that motor coordination is a two-way street (feedback to and from the brain), the brain and body’s ability to stimulate the proper muscles necessary for motor coordination diminishes.
3. Muscle Weakness or Atrophy
The strength and longevity of our muscles depend on two things: mass and contraction, respectively. When motor nerves are pinched, the functionality of contraction is impaired – this is felt as muscle weakness.
In rare but severe cases, muscle atrophy (or shrinkage) occurs. Of course, the earlier that muscle weakness is detected and examined, the better the prognosis.
4. Pain or Burning
Pain and/or burning sensations surface when the root of a sensory nerve compresses. The most commonly reported symptoms include: burning or tingling of the feet, buttocks, legs, thighs, or lower back. These areas are often not where the actual problem resides, however.
For example, it’s common to feel pain in the thigh region and think (naturally) that’s where the problem lies. But with pinched sensory nerves, it’s likely that the problem originates from a compressed femoral nerve in the lower back region.
5. Radiating pain/spasms
A pinched nerve may also manifest as a radiating (“shooting”) type of pain, usually felt in the legs or lower back region. A pinched peripheral nerve may also induce muscle spasms in the lower back, which can be very painful.
Sciatica, a condition that includes shooting pains of the lower back, hip, and outer side of the leg, is caused by compression of a spinal nerve root in the lower back.
Treating pinched nerves
Stewart Eidelson M.D. – an orthopedic surgeon and founder of the South Palm Orthospine Institute in Boca Raton, Florida – provides the following self-care tips when dealing with a pinched nerve:
– Alternate heat and ice on the affected area: “switch between (heat and ice) every 20 minutes, and remember to wrap the heat and ice packs in a towel before putting them on your skin.”
– Get a professional massage
– Lie down with a rolled up towel under your neck
– Use a handheld massager
– Take a light stroll
– Lie down on a bed/couch and pull your knees toward your chest
– Take an anti-inflammatory medicine, such as Aleve or Advil.
“If your pain persists more than a couple of days, make an appointment to see your doctor,” says Eidelson.