Your aching back, stiff neck or arm and leg pain might be courtesy of a pinched nerve. Nerves in your spine and other parts of your body can be compressed by surrounding tissue, causing pain, numbness and tingling. Time, rest and home treatment relieve most pinched nerves, but when they don’t, other treatments can help.
A pinched nerve is a compressed nerve. Surrounding tissues that press on nerve roots can cause pain, numbness and tingling in different areas of your body. In many cases, the cause is a herniated disk slipping out between vertebrae in the spinal cord and pressing on the spinal nerve that goes down the leg.
Most pinched nerves originate in the neck (cervical radiculopathy), upper middle back (thoracic radiculopathy) or lower back (lumbar radiculopathy). You can also experience pinched nerves in your hand, elbow and wrist (carpal tunnel syndrome for the wrist).
Pinched nerves can affect several areas of your body:
A pinched nerve can be painful, but it’s usually treatable with rest, over-the-counter medication and physical therapy. Most people recover fully from a pinched nerve.
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Pinched nerves are common; every year about 85 out of 100,000 adults in the United States are affected by pinched nerves. People of any age can experience pinched nerves, but those aged 50 and older are most likely to have them, due to arthritis and degeneration in the spine and other parts of the body.
Pinched nerves can happen throughout your body based on the location of the nerves being affected. The most common areas where you’ll feel the effects of a pinched nerve are the:
Yes, most will with time (normally four to six weeks). You can improve symptoms with rest and pain medications such as naproxen, ibuprofen or acetaminophen. If home treatment doesn’t provide you relief after several days, call your provider, who’ll give you more guidance. You may be asked to come to the office for evaluation and tests.
A pinched nerve can become serious, causing chronic pain, or even lead to permanent nerve damage. Fluid and swelling can do irreversible damage to the nerves, so be sure to contact your provider if your symptoms worsen or don’t improve after several days.
Some conditions can cause tissue or bone to compress a nerve and cause symptoms. These include:
You’ll want to visit a healthcare provider about your pinched nerve if it’s not responding to conservative treatment at home. To find the source of the pinched nerve, providers physically examine your neck, arms, shoulders, and wrist and hands. They’ll look for muscle weakness, test change in reflexes and ask about the different sensations you’re feeling.
If necessary, you may be asked to undergo one or more of these procedures to track the source of the problem:
Medical management (non-surgical) is the first line of treatment for pinched nerves. This includes:
Surgery is the last resort in treating a pinched nerve when non-surgical treatment hasn’t relieved pressure on nerves. Examples of surgeries that fix spinal nerve compression include:
After these surgeries, a full recovery of strength and motion may take several months. Most people can return to a desk job within a few days to a few weeks after surgery. Depending on your surgery, a return to full activities may take three to four months. Your surgeon will give you a general idea of your recovery time, and some people may take longer.
Not all pinched nerves can be prevented, but you can lower your risk if you:
Many people recover fully from a pinched nerve with home treatment. When medical or surgical treatment is needed, the outlook for full recovery is excellent.
If the pain and other symptoms of your pinched nerve hasn’t shown signs of easing up after several days, call your provider.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/07/2020.
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