Identifying and Treating a Pinched Nerve in the Neck

The neck contains a network of delicate spinal bones, large nerves, and muscles to support and rotate the head. While this complexity is vital to our body’s functions, there is also the risk of nerves becoming pinched or compressed.

Pinched nerves are annoying and painful, but are usually not dangerous. In many cases, they go away on their own. However, sometimes a pinched nerve can persist or lead to more serious problems. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and warning signs can help a person with neck pain decide whether to seek further help.

Symptoms

One of the primary symptoms of a pinched neck nerve is pain† The pain can be in the neck, but it can also develop in the shoulder, upper back, or arms — elsewhere along the nerve’s path.

Some people feel tingling, numbness, burning, or radiating pain in their arms and fingers. Moving the neck can become uncomfortable.

Back view of a woman suffering from shoulder pain NickyLloyd / Getty Images

Causes

Repetitive movements and sleeping or working in a difficult position can cause tense muscles, which then put pressure on the spinal cord and lead to pinched nerves.

In other cases, one of the soft discs protecting the vertebrae can slip. This is called a hernia or hernia and can result in a pinched nerve in the spine.

A man who wakes up and suffers from neck pain tomaso79 / Getty Images

Risk Factors

Some people are more likely to have pinched nerves than others. As we get older, our vertebrae become bony and crowd closer together, increasing the risk of hernias and pinched nerves. Medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and degenerative disc disease can also increase the risk.

Pinched nerves are a common injury in front of office workers or people who stretch their necks upwards, such as painters and electricians.

woman holds neck in pain PeopleImages/Getty Images

When should you be concerned?

A few warning characters and symptoms that develop from a pinched nerve may indicate a more serious problem. If a person cannot move their neck or arm, or if the pain is accompanied by confusion, high fever, or nausea, they should seek medical attention.

If the pinched nerve was caused by a collision, such as a fall or a car accident, it’s worth going to the hospital and making sure there isn’t a more serious injury.

A sick man looks at a thermometer Alexander Medvedev / Getty Images

Diagnosis

When you see a doctor about a pinched nerve, they will ask about the pain and try to rule out more serious injuries or illnesses. They may perform a physical exam to check for: muscle weakness, changing reflexes, and range of motion

If a physical exam doesn’t provide enough information, the doctor may recommend further testing. X-rays and MRI scans can help the doctor see abnormalities in the spine. An electromyography or EMG test uses electrical pulses to test whether the nerves are working correctly.

Female patient is ready for an x-ray and radiologist prepares the machine andresr / Getty Images

Home treatments

The primary home treatment for a pinched nerve in the neck is rest† Over-the-counter pain relievers can help with the discomfort. Warm compresses, heating pads, and hot showers can also relieve the pain.

Gently stretching and massaging the painful area can help a pinched nerve heal faster. It is not necessary to completely avoid moving the neck, but move slowly and smoothly to avoid jerking.

Man taking medicine Paul Bradbury / Getty Images

Further treatments

Some people have chronic or severely pinched nerves and require more extensive treatment. If the pain doesn’t respond to ibuprofen or acetaminophen, a doctor may: prescribe a steroid medication to relax the muscles and help with pain† A physical therapist can provide stretches and exercises to strengthen the neck, and braces can keep it in the best position for healing.

In particularly severe cases that don’t respond to traditional treatments, surgery can relieve pressure on the nerves.

therapist doing stretching exercises on the patient's neck Lacheev / Getty Images

Prognosis

Most people with a pinched nerve will make a full recovery. The symptoms should disappear within a week, although the can take four to six weeks to fully heal

Some people experience recurrent pinched nerves or pinched nerves that take longer to heal. In these cases, a doctor may be able to suggest long-term strategies to prevent further pain.

doctor examining patient's neck Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

Preventing pinched nerves

We can’t always prevent a pinched nerve, but there are ways to reduce the risk. Regular stretching and good posture help prevent nerves become caught in the first place

While working, whether it’s in front of a computer or a job that involves stretching the neck, try to take breaks, use ergonomic equipment whenever possible, and alternate work tasks to incorporate a wider range of motion.

Woman stretching while working from home office Stefan Tomic / Getty Images

Research into pinched nerves

The national Spine Health Foundation is a consortium of physicians and researchers seeking to improve spinal health and reduce pain. Their global studies focused on developing long-term solutions that could reduce the risk of pinched nerves in the future.

This includes developing better replacement discs and treatments for people with degenerative disc disease and chronic neck pain.

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