Pinched Nerves: Symptoms and Treatments

A pinched nerve, also called a compressed nerve, occurs when something presses on a nerve. The nervous symptom is made up of billions of nerve cells throughout our body. They respond to environmental stimulation and send signals to the brain. After interpreting these signals, the brain determines an appropriate response and sends signals back.

When a nerve becomes pinched under pressure, it cannot function properly. Affected nerve cells send pain and other sensations as warning signals.

Types of Pinched Nerves

Pinched nerves can develop anywhere when surrounding tissue – such as bones, muscles, tendons, or cartilage – Press or squeeze nerve cells† Cervical nerves in the neck and shoulder are most commonly affected. Other common sites include the thoracic and lumbar nerves in the chest and low back, respectively.

A pinched ulnar nerve in the arm or elbow is often referred to as the “funny bone.” The median nerve that runs along the wrist and hand is also prone to compression, causing carpal tunnel syndrome.

woman with pain in her wrist spukkato / Getty Images

General Symptoms

Symptoms of a pinched nerve may be sharp or burning pain, dull pain, tingling, numbness, burning, or prickling. Pain may be consistent or sporadic in eruptions radiating outward from the original location.

Symptoms can occur anywhere along the affected nerve, so pain or tingling in one place doesn’t always mean that’s where the compression is.

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Specific Symptoms

Some symptoms from pinched nerves vary by location. Cervical compressions can cause a stiff neck and pain or numbness in the shoulders and arms. Some daily tasks can be difficult because turning your head aggravates the pinched nerve.

A pinched nerve in the lower back can cause sharp, shooting pains in the back, hips, buttocks, and legs. Pinched nerves in the chest can also cause pain in the chest and arms, but never assume that chest pain is due to a pinched nerve. See a doctor immediately to rule out other possible causes.

senior man suffering from low back pain AsiaVision/Getty Images

Causes of acute pinched nerves

A pinched nerve can develop gradually time or sudden occurrence without warning. Slipped or herniated discs in the spine can cause sudden, acute pinched nerves in the back and neck.

Other possible causes of acute pinched nerves include athletic injuries, accidents, and awkward or abrupt movements when lifting, twisting, or pulling.

Shot of a mature man experiencing back pain while riding his mountain bike Mikolette/Getty Images

Gradual Causes

Age-related wear and tear on the back can cause pinched nerves. Discs between vertebrae dry out and shrink, bringing vertebrae closer together. The vertebrae grow small bulges of bone called bone spurs to compensate. Bone spurs eventually fill up enough space to pinch nerve roots in the spine.

Repetitive tasks, such as typing, using a mouse, and other tasks that require fine motor skills, can put strain on muscles and ligaments in the hands and wrists. Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when muscle and ligament tissue pinches the median nerve.

Hand with computer mouse with wrist pain chat9780 / Getty Images


doctors diagnose pinched nerves with a physical exam and medical history. A doctor may ask about symptoms and any accidents or events that preceded pain or injury. They will also want to know which actions make the pain worse or relieve it.

Imaging tests, such as an EMG, MRI, or CT scan, may be used to confirm a diagnosis of severe symptoms or to investigate further if symptoms do not subside within 6 to 8 weeks.

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Non-medical interventions

Sometimes rest can help a pinched nerve to heal within a few days or weeks. This is especially important for people who are caused by injury or carpel tunnel syndrome.

A relatively common problem with carpal tunnel syndrome is that repetitive tasks are required for work, which can lead to ignoring the pain or returning to work too soon. Over-the-counter medications can help with pain and inflammation, but rest should still be a priority.

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Non-surgical treatment

A soft neck collar is a padded device that holds the neck in one position to prevent worsening of a pinched nerve and give the muscles in the neck time to heal. Cervical collars are only worn for a short time.

Physiotherapy is another non-surgical intervention for more severe or chronic pinched nerves. Therapists help clients strengthen muscles, increase flexibility and improve range of motion. Prescription medications, such as anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids, can be used in conjunction with other interventions.

Woman wearing a neck brace Staras / Getty Images


If other treatments fail to correct a pinched nerve, doctors be able to propose surgery† This approach can remove bone spurs and stabilize the spine by fusing two vertebrae into one bone, relieving back and neck pain.

Artificial disc replacement, in which a synthetic disc is placed between the vertebrae, is another option. Carpal tunnel syndrome is often treated with surgery to relieve pressure on the median nerve.

Concentrated surgeon performing surgery with her team jacoblund / Getty Images

Prognosis and Prevention

The prognosis for a pinched nerve is usually very good, especially with early intervention. Of course, it’s always better to avoid a painful condition in the first place.

Reduce your risk with maintain good posture and a healthy weight† Stretching exercises to increase flexibility can also help prevent pinched nerves. Avoid sitting or lying in one position for long periods and try not to cross your legs while sitting. Take frequent breaks from repetitive movements to give the hands and wrists a break.

Back view of a businessman stretching out his arms in office Andrey Popov / Getty Images
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