What is a pinched nerve?

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 in the cervical spine can give you a stiff neck, and the pain and numbness can affect the shoulder and arm.
  • A pinched lumbar nerve in the lower back can cause pain in your back, hips, buttocks and legs.
  • Thoracic radiculopathy causes pain in your chest area. If you have severe chest pain, play it safe and call your healthcare provider.

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.

How common is a pinched nerve?

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.

Where do pinched nerves occur in my 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:

  • Neck and shoulder (compressed cervical nerves).
  • Back and upper chest (compressed thoracic and lumbar nerves).
  • Arm and elbow (caused by pressure on the ulnar nerve; for example, pain in this nerve is felt when you hit your elbow’s “funny bone”).
  • Wrist and hand (often caused by carpal tunnel syndrome).

Will a pinched nerve go away on its own? How long does it take?

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.

Can a pinched nerve lead to more serious problems?

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.

What causes a pinched nerve?

Some conditions can cause tissue or bone to compress a nerve and cause symptoms. These include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation in the joints that may pressure nearby nerves.
  • Aging leads to “wear and tear” on the spine and its discs. Over time spinal discs can lose water content and flatten. The vertebrae (bones in the spinal cord) move closer together, and in response the body forms growths of bone. These bone growths, or spurs, can compress nerves.
  • Sudden injury from sports or an accident can result in a pinched nerve. Awkward lifting, pulling, or twisting movements can cause a herniated disc.
  • Repetitive motion tasks, like extended periods of typing on a keyboard, can cause stress in your wrist and hand. This may lead to carpal tunnel syndrome (tendon inflammation pressuring the median nerve in your arm).
  • Obesity: Excess weight can swell your nerve pathway, putting pressure on nerves.
  • Pregnancy: The extra weight can result in compressed nerves.
  • Diabetes: High glucose (sugar) levels in the blood damage your nerves.

What are symptoms of a pinched nerve?

  • Pain (sharp or a dull ache).
  • Numbness.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Tingling (“pins and needles” sensation).
  • Sensation that your hand or foot has fallen asleep.

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