Pinched (Compressed) Nerve

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on July 08, 2024
5 min read

Nerves extend from your brain and spinal cord, sending important messages throughout your body. If you have a pinched nerve (nerve compression), your body may send you warning signals, such as pain. Don't ignore these warning signals.

Damage from a pinched nerve may be minor or severe. It may cause temporary or long-lasting problems. The earlier you get a diagnosis and treatment for nerve compression, the quicker you'll find relief.

The term "pinched nerve" describes one type of damage or injury to a nerve or set of nerves. A pinched nerve happens when there is "compression" (pressure) on a nerve.

Nerves are most vulnerable at places in your body where they travel through narrow spaces but have little soft tissue to protect them. Nerve compression often occurs when the nerve is pressed between tissues such as:

  • Ligament
  • Tendon
  • Bone

For example, inflammation or pressure on a nerve root exiting the spine may cause neck or lower back pain. It may also cause pain to radiate from the neck into the shoulder and arm (cervical radiculopathy) or from the lower back into the leg and foot (lumbar radiculopathy or sciatic nerve pain).

These symptoms may result from changes that develop in the spine's disks and bones. For example, if a disk slips out of place or protrudes — known as a herniated disk — pressure can be put on a spinal nerve.

Nerve compression in your neck or arm may also cause symptoms in areas such as your:

This can lead to conditions such as:

These injuries may range from minor temporary damage to a more permanent condition. If nerve compression lasts a long time, a protective barrier around the nerve may break down. Fluid may build up, which may cause:

  • Swelling
  • Extra pressure
  • Scarring

The scarring may interfere with the nerve's function.

Certain conditions can cause added pressure on your nerves, including:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis: Joint inflammation from this condition can put pressure on nerves.
  • Osteoarthritis: An overgrowth of bone (bone spurs) resulting from the wearing away of cartilage in your joints presses on nerves.
  • Repetitive motion injuries: These are things such as typing or working on an assembly line where you're repeating the same task over and over, which can cause inflammation and a pinched nerve.
  • Injury: Bone, ligament, or muscle injuries can cause a pinched nerve due to tissue damage or swelling.
  • Diabetes: People with this condition may have another health problem called diabetic neuropathy or nerve damage.
  • Extended bed rest: Lying down for a long time, such as on bed rest, can compress your nerves.
  • Pregnancy: As your unborn baby grows, their increasing size can exert pressure on your organs, causing compressed nerves.
  • Obesity: Extra weight causes more pressure on your nerves.
  • Thyroid disease: If you have this condition, you're more likely to have carpal tunnel syndrome.

With nerve compression, sometimes pain may be your only symptom. Or you may have other symptoms without pain.

These are some of the more common symptoms of compressed nerves:

  • Pain in the area of compression, such as the neck or lower back
  • Radiating pain, such as sciatica or radicular pain
  • Numbness or tingling
  • "Pins and needles" or a burning sensation
  • Weakness, especially with certain activities
  • The feeling of having a foot or hand "fall asleep"

Sometimes, symptoms worsen when you try certain movements, such as turning your head or straining your neck, or when you're sleeping. Early diagnosis is important to prevent further damage or complications. A pinched nerve is a common cause of on-the-job injury.

If home treatments such as rest and over-the-counter pain relievers don't ease symptoms of a pinched nerve, talk to your doctor. They'll give you a physical exam to look for muscle weakness and reflex changes. Your doctor may also run tests to get to the root cause of your pinched nerve. They include:

  • X-ray: This test can reveal changes to your bones that cause pinched nerves.
  • Ultrasound: If you have nerve compression or ligament damage, it may show up in an ultrasound.
  • CT scan: These detailed images show more of your bones and soft tissues that an X-ray may miss.
  • MRI: This test reveals if soft tissue damage is causing a pinched nerve.
  • EMG and nerve conduction study: These tests help your doctor to figure out if a nerve is working properly.
  • Spinal tap: During this test, a doctor collects a sample of fluid from around your spinal cord to look for signs of inflammation or infection.

You may find that resting the injured area and avoiding activities that tend to worsen your symptoms benefit you. In many cases, that's all you need to do. In the meantime, here are some home remedies you can try:

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs ). NSAIDs such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen may reduce swelling.

Hot and cold therapy. Alternate between ice and heat to bring down swelling.

Adjust your posture. Try not to stay in one position or cross your legs for a long time.

Stretch. Stretching exercises can help build muscle strength and flexibility.

Splint. A splint or soft collar limits motion and allows muscles to rest for brief periods.

How long it takes for symptoms to end can vary from person to person. Treatment varies, depending on the severity and cause of the nerve compression. If symptoms persist or pain is severe, see your doctor. You may need one or more types of treatment to shrink swollen tissue around the nerve.

In more severe cases, it may be necessary to remove material that's pressing on a nerve, such as:

  • Scar tissue
  • Disk material
  • Pieces of bone

Treatment may include:

Oral corticosteroids. These are used to reduce swelling and pain.

Narcotics. These are used for brief periods to reduce severe pain.

Steroid injections. These injections may reduce swelling and allow inflamed nerves to recover.

Physical therapy. This will help stretch and strengthen muscles.

Surgery. Surgery may be needed for more severe problems that don't respond to other types of treatment.

Work with your doctor to find the best approach for treating your symptoms.

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A pinched nerve, or nerve compression, happens when there is too much pressure on a nerve by surrounding tissues such as bones, tendons, or ligaments. This condition can result from repetitive motions, maintaining a single posture for prolonged periods, or structural changes in the spine such as herniated disks. The symptoms of a pinched nerve can range from pain in the affected area (such as the neck or lower back) to radiating pain (such as sciatica), numbness, tingling sensations, and muscle weakness. These symptoms may worsen with certain movements or activities.

Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to avoid permanent damage and ease symptoms. Treatments often include rest, avoiding activities that make the issue worse, and over-the-counter NSAIDs to reduce swelling. If symptoms continue, talk to your doctor.