Pinched Nerve

Depiction of a spine with spondylosis and facet joint hypertrophy
Facet joint hypertrophy may cause radiculopathy symptoms.. Medical Art Inc./E+/Getty Images

What is a Pinched Nerve?

Pinched nerve is a general, non-medical term that refers to pressure put on a nerve by soft tissue, bone, or a herniated disc. A number of things can cause a pinched nerve including injury, repetitive movement, arthritis, and posture.  

A common (albeit, mild) symptom of a pinched nerve in your neck and shoulders might be the crick you wake up with after sleeping in an awkward position all night.

Related: Soft Tissue

Compression of this sort (which is also known as nerve compression) can disturb the nerve’s ability to function.  It can cause pain and possibly other symptoms such as the sensation of pins and needles or electrical shock, as well as weakness and/or numbness.  (You will learn more about this below in the section on neck and back pain related nerve compression.)

It’s important to see your doctor if you experience numbness or weakness.  The reason for this is that the longer you leave it unattended, the higher is your chance of permanent nerve damage.

The good news is that if you catch a pinched nerve early and are able to (through treatment) relieve the pressure, the nerve’s functioning will likely be restored.

A Pinched Nerve by Any Other Name Is...

Pinched nerve goes by a number of names, some officially medical and others not.  Along with nerve compression it might also be referred to as nerve impingement, nerve entrapment, radiculopathy and/or sciatica.

  Even though these terms relate to pinched nerve, they don’t all mean the same thing, and each has its own degree of accuracy in terms of medical diagnosis.

Nerve impingement, which is also referred to as nerve entrapment, is when one single nerve is directly compressed.  This happens in the peripheral nervous system (where the nerves are branched and individual.)

Pinched Nerve in the Neck or Back

When it comes to back or neck pain, a pinched nerve is usually caused by compression of a spinal nerve root in the intervertebral foramen.  This is called radiculopathy, and sometimes nerve root impingement.

The spinal nerve root is the beginning of a nerve, where it branches off from the spinal cord.  It exits out this foramen (which means “hole”) and continues branching (becoming “peripheral nerves”) to all areas of the body.

Related: Facet Joint Hypertrophy

Symptoms of radiculopathy, or spinal nerve root compression, include pain or electrical sensations (pins and needles, etc.) that go down one arm or one leg.  Symptoms may also include numbness and/or weakness down one leg or arm.  More serious signs of radiculopathy – difficulty with bowels and/or bladder, saddle amnesia, and/or leg weakness that keeps getting worse -  may indicate cauda equine syndrome, a condition that requires immediate medical attention.

In the low back and leg, many people confuse radiculopathy with sciatica.

Radiculopathy is a disease of the spinal nerve root (such as compression); sciatica is a set of symptoms like pain, numbness, weakness and/or electrical symptoms that go down one leg and are often caused by radiculopathy, as well as other conditions.

Radiculopathy can occur at any region and is often, but not always caused by herniated disc.

Related: Causes of Cervcial Radiulopathy

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