A pinched nerve is the name given to the uncomfortable sensation, pain, or numbness caused when increased pressure leads to irritation or damage to a peripheral nerve (A peripheral nerve is one that is outside the brain and spinal cord.). Although this condition is often associated with back pain or a neck injury, almost any nerve is susceptible. A herniated disk in your lower spine, for example, may put pressure on a nerve root, causing pain that radiates down the back of your leg. Likewise, a pinched nerve in your wrist can lead to pain and numbness in your hand and fingers (carpal tunnel syndrome).
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 more quickly you'll find relief. In some cases, you can't reverse the damage from a pinched nerve.
Pinched Nerve Causes
A pinched nerve occurs when too much pressure (compression) is applied to a nerve by surrounding tissues. In some cases, this tissue might be bone or cartilage. In other cases, muscle or tendons may cause the condition. The pressure may be the result of repetitive motions. Or it may happen from holding your body in one position for long periods, such as keeping elbows bent while sleeping. Nerves are most vulnerable at places in your body where they travel through narrow spaces but have little soft tissue to protect them.
In the case of carpal tunnel syndrome, a variety of tissues may be responsible for compression of the carpal tunnel's median nerve, including swollen tendon sheaths within the tunnel, enlarged bone that narrows the tunnel, or a thickened and degenerated ligament.
A number of conditions may cause tissue to compress a nerve or nerves, including:
Pinched Nerve Symptoms
Pressure on a peripheral nerve can irritate the nerve itself, its protective covering, or both. When this occurs, the nerve is unable to conduct sensory impulses to the brain appropriately, leading to a sense of numbness. This inflammation associated with the damage or injury can also cause pain or paresthesia (a tingling or prickling sensation) signals to be sent to the brain.
Inflammation or pressure on a nerve root exiting the spine may cause neck or low back pain and may also cause pain to radiate from the neck into the shoulder and arm. Or pain may radiate into the leg and foot (sciatica). Nerve compression in your neck or arm may also cause symptoms in areas such as elbow, hand, wrist and fingers.
If a nerve is pinched for only a short time, there's usually no permanent damage. Once the pressure is relieved, nerve function returns to normal. However, if the pressure continues, chronic pain and permanent nerve damage can occur.
Pinched nerve signs and symptoms include:
The problems related to a pinched nerve may be worse when you're sleeping. Sometimes symptoms worsen when you try certain movements, such as turning your head or straining your neck.
Common areas where nerves are pinched include the following:
Of note, although tennis elbow is a painful condition often associated with repetitive activities, the pain is caused by inflammation of the tendons of the elbow, not a pinched nerve.
Pinched Nerve Risk Factors
The following factors may increase your risk of experiencing a pinched nerve:
Other risk factors include:
Pinched Nerve Diagnosis
The diagnosis of pinched nerve is made by taking a history of symptoms and performing a careful physical examination. Depending on the findings, the diagnosis may be made clinically or further testing may be required.
Electromyography (EMG) is a nerve conduction study to help confirm the diagnosis of a pinched nerve and to determine the extent of nerve damage.
If the pinched nerve is in the neck or back, an MRI or CT scan may be considered to make the diagnosis and look for the cause (bulging disc, arthritis, or fracture).
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if the signs and symptoms of a pinched nerve last for several days and don't respond to self-care measures, such as rest and over-the-counter pain relievers.
Pinched Nerve Treatment
Treatment varies, depending on the severity and cause of the nerve compression.
Pinched Nerve Prognosis
In many cases, once a pinched nerve has been identified, the symptoms can be resolved when treatment allows the nerve to recover. There are instances where the nerve damage is permanent, and a patient may be left with permanent numbness or pain in the affected area. Because nerves can regenerate (regrow) very slowly over time, it's important to seek evaluation for symptoms which persist or recur over a number of days or weeks.
Pinched Nerve Prevention
The following measures may help you prevent a pinched nerve: