Understanding Pinched Nerve Causes and Risk Factors

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A pinched nerve is a colloquial term used to describe nerve compression. They can develop in a wide variety of body regions. When nerves leading from the spine become pinched, they often trigger symptoms in the arms and legs since these extremities are connected to nerves along the neck and back, respectively. 

These symptoms can be brief or enduring, minor or severe, or anything in between, according to Kaliq Chang, MD, is a board-certified physician who is fellowship-trained in pain management at Atlantic Spine Center in New York. Depending on where the pinched nerve is located, symptoms will vary. If it’s in the back, you may feel pain in your buttocks that radiates down the legs or feet. If the pinched nerve is in your neck, the arms and hands can be the site of pain, numbness, weakness, or tingling.

Many factors, both controllable and uncontrollable, can lead to pinched nerves. Certain factors increase the odds that you’ll suffer from a pinched nerve, and Dr. Chang says they include: 

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Involvement in a motor vehicle accident
  • An occupation necessitating repetitive movements or sitting
  • Pregnancy
  • Family history

There are specific spine conditions that can directly cause pinched nerves, Dr. Chang says. These include: 

  • Herniated or bulging discs in spinal vertebrae
  • Spinal bone spurs
  • Facet joint arthritis
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Spondylolisthesis
  • Congenital short pedicles

Tips on diagnosing, treating pinched nerves a straightforward process

Rooting out the cause of a pinched nerve can involve the use of various diagnostic tests. These include: 

  • MRI imaging, which produces detailed images of possible nerve root compression
  • Nerve conduction studies, which use electrodes to measure electrical nerve impulses and muscle and nerve function
  • Electromyography, which evaluates electrical activity in muscles while contracting and at rest

Other low-key but effective treatment measures can include NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen to reduce nerve pain and inflammation and chiropractic care or physical therapy to strengthen and stretch muscles, which can relieve pressure on nerves. Beyond conservative management, epidural steroid injections in the cervical or lumbar spine are the fastest and most direct method of reducing inflammation around the pinched nerve, leading to pain relief and return of functioning.  Surgery is usually a last resort, Dr. Chang says, and performed only if all conservative measures haven’t reduced pinched nerve pain over a long period.   “For the vast majority of those with pinched nerves, it’s a short-term problem lasting only a few days to a few weeks,” Dr. Chang says. “But if your pinched nerve isn’t getting better, it is time to see a spine specialist.  Symptoms lasting longer than a month will most likely require more extensive, specialized treatment, and the sooner pinched nerves can be evaluated, the sooner relief can be achieved .”  

Kaliq Chang, MD, is a board-certified physician who is fellowship-trained in pain management at Atlantic Spine Center

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