It is astounding to realize that the average human body contains between 45 to 50 miles of nerves, which function as the electrical system of our bodies. Every thought and action—voluntary or involuntary is controlled and regulated by electrical signals, called impulses that course through our bodies carried along the complex highway of our nervous system.
Nerves require, just as traffic on our highways do, a clear path and a steady stream of movement. Any time anything impinges on a nerve’s abilities to pass its signals on, the result can be incapacitating.
What is a "Pinched Nerve"?
The term “pinched nerve” refers to a type of injury or damage to a nerve that compromises its ability to function and may be of one of three types: nerve compression, nerve entrapment or nerve stretching.
- Nerve compression generally refers to a nerve being pinched by cartilage, bone or muscle tissue
- Nerve entrapment refers more specifically to nerves in the extremities which become restricted in their passage through tunnel-like anatomical structures.
- Nerve stretching generally occurs when, through trauma or other means, a nerve (not unlike a muscle) is strained beyond its normal range of tolerance. Stretching injuries may be minor with no destruction of the membranes around the nerve or severe, when sheathing may be compromised and nerve tissue loses continuity.
Pinched Nerve Symptoms
A pinched nerve can occur almost anywhere in the human body, though common forms of pinched nerves are neck or back pain and stiffness; sciatica (radiating pain in an limb, most often the leg); and carpal tunnel syndrome, (a classic example of nerve entrapment) A pinched nerve is generally a localized phenomenon and pinched nerve symptoms which present may vary according to location, but generally include some or all of the following:
- Burning feeling along a neural pathway
- Impaired balance or coordination
- “Pins and needles” sensation
- The sensation of having an extremity “fall asleep”
- Pain—especially pain that “shoots out” from
- Extremity “twitching” (such as a finger that spasms uncontrollably)
Seeking Pinched Nerve Treatment
It is best to consult with a physician when a pinched nerve is suspected, while some symptoms may pass with rest and time, there is a possibility of permanent loss of function should the root cause of the impairment not be identified and dealt with. You can expect your doctor to question you extensively about activities, especially those which cause the symptoms to present in the first place, family history, habits, recent injuries, other medical conditions which may have a bearing on the present discomfort.
A physical examination which gauges strength, muscle fitness and sensations in the affected area is generally required. More extensive tests, including x-rays, CAT scans, MRIs, and nerve conduction tests, wherein the affected nerve is stimulated by an electrical impulse and its speed of transmission is measured, may ultimately be necessary.
Treatment for Pinched Nerves
Treatment will depend on the type of injury or damage, and its severity. Often, rest and the use of ice on the affected area may be all that is required. If the pinched nerve is in the hand or wrist, a brace may be effective in supporting the affected area while it heals. Medications are also effective, including over the counter or prescriptive strength anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen sodium. Sometimes medications such as pregablin (brand name: Lyrica) and gabapentin (Neurotonin) which are formulated specifically for nerve pain may be required. Some form of physical therapy may also be suggested, improvement of muscle, tendon and ligament health and exercise which promotes optimum body alignment can aid in relief from symptoms.
In some cases, especially those where progressive loss of function presents, surgery may be required to correct the problem. Common forms of this type of surgery are removal of herniated disks in the spine, and carpal tunnel syndrome related surgeries which release the median nerve from entrapment by surrounding tissues.
The good news is that for most people, recovery from a pinched nerve will be uneventful, with a good and lasting response being gained from the conventional rest, activity modification, medication, physical therapy and icing. Surgery is generally reserved only for those who are suffering increasing impairment and non response to conventional treatments.
The essential truth of dealing with pinched nerve symptoms is to take them seriously and proceed with caution and care to avoid permanent injury and disability. Your family doctor is your best ally in identifying the cause of your pain, but never forget that you are ultimately the one in charge of all decisions relevant to your health and its preservation.