Many patients talk about having pinched nerves, but what exactly is a pinched nerve? It is imperative to understand a few things about the spinal cord and the nerves that can be “pinched” when answering this question.
Brain to the Spinal Cord
Extending from the brain and into the appendages, nerves relay messages to our skin or our muscles. The nerve that extends from the spine into the legs or arms is referred to as a peripheral nerve. These peripheral nerves are really clusters of millions of nerve fibers that extend from the spinal cord and branch out to other parts of the body such as the skin and muscles. In other words, peripheral nerves enable your muscles to move and your skin to feel sensations.
Nerves are Signal Messengers to the Body
A peripheral nerve can be compared to a fiber-optic cable, multiple fibers enclosed in a casing. Each fiber can be though of as a microscopic garden hose. The green encasing of the hose is a fine membrane that allows a static electrical charge to travel to and from the brain. Inside the hose, fluids are being transported from the nerve cell body that aids in nourishing and replenishing the constant changing components of the green encasing (membrane).
If the fiber-optic cable (nerve) is pinched, the flow up and down the inside of the hose is reduced or blocked, meaning fluids (nutrients) stop flowing. Eventually, the green casing (membrane) starts to lose its ability to send tiny electrical charges and the nerve fiber could eventually die. When enough garden hoses (fibers) stop working, a muscle may not contract and numbness of the skin may occur.
Causes of a Pinched Nerve
Very often, a common place for pinched (compressed) nerves is the carpal tunnel. This is a very narrow area, through which the median nerve as well as all the finger flexor tendons have to pass to the hand.
A nerve can also be pinched as it exits the spinal column by a bulging disc, herniated disc, or even bone spurs that form from spinal arthritis.
Irregardless of where the nerve is compressed, in the neck or carpal tunnel, the patient often will experience symptoms of numbness in the hand, mainly because the brain does not know how to distinguish between the beginning, middle, or end of a nerve. It only knows that it is not getting signals from the hand, and so numbness begins. This is the basis of referred pain.
Symptoms of a Pinched Nerve in the Neck or Low Back
Pain that radiates down the leg is indicative of a pinched nerve in the low back. Here again, the symptoms the person experiences seem to be traveling into the leg along the usual path.
Pinched nerves is often accompanied by muscle spasm in the back that are really quite painful.
Occasionally, a pinched nerve has symptoms like numbness and weakness in the arm or leg without pain. Other symptoms include burning and tingling in the area, hot/cold or “electrical” sensation.
Pinched Nerve Treatments
If during the course of the day, you have developed pain, or if you woke up feeling like you may have pinched a nerve, there are some options for self-care before you seek chiropractic attention.
It’s possible that the pain is being caused by a muscle spasm that’s applying pressure on the nerve. Try, for example:
- relaxing the muscles
- treat with alternating heat and ice therapy on the affected area:,switching between them every 20 minutes. Remember to always wrap the heat or ice packs in a towel before applying them to the skin.
- take a hot shower
- lay down and place a rolled up towel under your neck
- use a handheld massager
- get a massage
You can also keep your body and joints moving to relieve pain from a pinched nerve. These techniques can help:
- range of motion stretches and movements: do some simple neck rolls if the pinched nerve feels like it is located in your neck. If you want to work on your lower back, refer to this article for exercises and stretches. Stretching your body releases endorphins in response to the movement that can provide pain relief.
- lay down on the couch and pull your knees up towards your chest.
- take a light stroll.
If your pain persists more than a couple of days, make an appointment to see your doctor.
Very few patients end up needing surgery for pinched nerves; for most of them, non-surgical treatments work to relieve their pain.
For more about Dr. Steven Pollack, visit Pollack Health and Wellness, located in Beachwood, NJ, or visit us online.