The term “pinched nerve” is a non-medical term used to describe a nerve that has been compressed or irritated, usually due to spinal stenosis, foraminal stenosis, or a herniated disc . The term can be slightly misleading as the nerve does not need to be “pinched” or compressed for pain symptoms or dysfunction to occur.
An Overview of the Spine
The spine, or vertebral column, is made up of 33 vertebrae (individual bone segments) that are stacked one on top of the other and spaced apart by small, shock-absorbing, sponge-like structures called intervertebral discs. The purpose of the spine is to protect the spinal cord and support us in standing, sitting, walking, and all other activities of daily life. The jelly-like inner layer of the intervertebral disc, called the nucleus pulposus, has no direct blood supply and needs alternating compressing (think: sitting) and decompressing (think: physical activity such as walking) forces to receive nutrients from the body and stay healthy. The spinal cord runs the length of the spine down to the upper portion of the low back and is encased within the hollow sections of these vertebrae. Spinal nerves branch off of the spinal cord at each level and exit the spinal column through holes between each pair of vertebrae called “foramen.” It is in these two areas—the hollow part of the vertebrae where the spinal cord runs down our backs and the holes between the vertebrae where the spinal nerves exit the vertebral column—that the nerves can be compressed, irritated or “pinched”.
What Causes Pinched Nerve Pain?
Pain is felt in the areas to which the affected nerves supply sensation and function. In the case of a pinched nerve in the neck, the pain is typically felt in the arms or hands. Conversely, a pinched nerve in the low back often results in pain in the legs and feet. When the compression is severe, there can be a loss of sensation or tingling in the associated skin area or a loss of function in the associated muscles.
Treatment for a Pinched Nerve
To successfully relieve the pain from a pinched nerve, you first need an accurate diagnosis from a medical professional – your doctor should determine the root cause of the pinched nerve. And here’s the good news: pain from a pinched nerve is typically treated without drugs or surgery. Most people can fix their pain at home. Information about how to treat a pinched nerve resulting from a disc herniation can be found here and from stenosis here. Do not ignore severe compression that causes a loss of sensation or function—in these instances surgery may be required to alleviate the nerve compression.
Written by Dr. Jeremy James. Dr. James founded and was director of the Aspen Club Back Institute in Aspen, Colorado, is the coauthor of the bestselling The Younger Next Year Back Book and earned his Doctor of Chiropractic from the University of Western States. Learn more about Dr. James here.