That numb, tingling or burning sensation in your arm or leg that doesn’t ease up? It could be caused by a pinched nerve, according to Ning (Sarah) Yang, MD, a neurologist at Banner Health Center in Fort Collins, CO. Even though you notice symptoms in your extremity, with a pinched nerve, the problem starts in your spine.
Here’s what happens when you have a pinched nerve. Nerves in your body exit from your spinal column through a small space and branch out to your arms and legs. Sometimes, that small space gets even smaller, and when it does it can pinch the nerve. Different factors can cause pinched nerves—arthritis and herniated discs are two of the most common.
With a pinched nerve, you might notice:
- Pins and needles
- A burning sensation
- Shooting pain
When should I seek help for a pinched nerve?
If your symptoms last for more than a few days, contact your doctor. Connect with your care provider sooner if you have pain that lasts more than a couple of days or is getting worse, or if you’re noticing weakness. Those signs could point to a more severe pinched nerve.
After taking your medical history and discussing your symptoms, your doctor will probably recommend an imaging study like an MRI or ultrasound. These tests can show whether there’s a structural problem that’s putting pressure on the nerve. But imaging studies alone can overestimate the effect the pressure is having on the nerves.
So, if imaging shows a pinched nerve, your doctor will likely recommend another test called electromyography (EMG). “EMG is a nerve and muscle test to confirm which nerves are specifically affected,” Dr. Yang said. With EMG, your doctor inserts needles into different muscles, and electrodes attached to the needles can pinpoint which nerves are damaged.
An accurate diagnosis is important because pinched nerves are often misdiagnosed as peripheral neuropathy. In peripheral neuropathy, your nerves are damaged, but the damage doesn’t come from compression at the spine. Pinched nerves and peripheral neuropathy can have identical symptoms, but their treatments are different.
How can I treat my pinched nerve?
Depending on how severe your pinched nerve is and how long you’ve noticed symptoms, your doctor will recommend certain treatment options:
- Rest, which could include a splint or brace to keep you from moving the affected area.
- Physical therapy to strengthen the neck and back muscles. “That can return the spine to its normal curvature and open up the spaces where the nerves are exiting,” Dr. Yang said.
- Steroid injections, which can help decrease inflammation.
- Surgery, which can correct the structural changes that are causing the pinched nerve if there is severe damage.
Can pinched nerves be prevented?
You can help reduce your odds of developing pinched nerves by keeping your core strong. Pinched nerves are common, though, and the older you get the more likely you’ll get one. “That’s because the degenerative changes that contribute to most pinched nerves gradually worsen with normal wear and tear of the spine,” Dr. Yang said.
The bottom line
Pinched nerves happen frequently, especially as you age, and they’re treatable. If you notice symptoms that could point to a pinched nerve, talk to your doctor. If you need to find a doctor near you, visit bannerhealth.com.
For more information about nerve-related health conditions, try:
- Why Do My Feet Go Numb on the Elliptical?
- Herniated Discs: More Than Just a Pain in the Neck
- How to Avoid Painful Carpal Tunnel Syndrome