Pinched Nerve in the Neck Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment
What Is a Pinched Nerve in the Neck?
Let’s begin with the purpose of the human body’s nerves. Nerves travel from the brain along a specific path to send important messages to our muscles or skin. Nerves that exit the spine and lead to the arms or the legs are called peripheral nerves. A peripheral nerve consists of bundles of millions of nerve fibers that feed our muscles or skin with important information sent from the brain.
You can imagine a peripheral nerve is similar to a fiber-optic cable; there are many fibers that are encased in an outer sheath. Think of each fiber that runs through the cable as a microscopic straw. Along the outside of this straw, static electrical charges travel to and from the brain. The inside of the straw transports fluid needed to replenish the components of the membrane (outer layer of the straw).
Now that we understand how a nerve works, we can more completely understand what happens when a nerve is pinched. When there is a pinched nerve in the neck, the flow of fluid (nutrients) inside the straw is reduced or blocked – imagine trying to drink through a straw that you have bent. Eventually the outer membrane of the straw will start to become unable to properly transmit the electrical charges. At this point the nerve fiber may actually die. When enough of the fibers stop working, muscles may stop contracting, and the skin may begin to feel numb.
Pinched Nerve in the Neck Symptoms
Pinched nerve in the neck symptoms will most often be felt in the neck, shoulders, arms, and into the hands. Symptoms will be dependent on which nerve is actually pinched, except in rare cases where genetics has wired the human body differently. Below is a list of common pinched nerve in the neck symptoms:
- C5 nerve root (C4 – C5 disc)
- Weakness will be felt in the upper arm deltoid muscle. Compression of the C5 nerve will rarely cause numbness or a tingling sensation in the skin but may cause shoulder pain.
- C6 nerve root (C5 – C6 disc)
- Typically the symptoms of a C6 nerve compression include weakness in the biceps and wrist extensor muscles. Compression of the C6 nerve can also cause numbness, tingling, and pain that will radiate from the bicep down the arm to the thumb side of the hand.
- C7 nerve root (C6 – C7 disc)
- Weakness can be felt in the triceps and finger extensor muscles. Pressure placed on the C7 nerve can cause numbness, tingling, and pain that will radiate down the arm from the triceps to the middle finger.
- C8 nerve root (C7 – T1 disc)
- Compression of the C8 nerve root will cause weakened handgrip. It will also cause numbness, tingling, and pain that radiates down the arm and to the outside of the hand.
*note* C6 and C7 are the most common nerves that suffer from compression in the cervical spine. The C8 nerve is the most uncommon.
Treatment for a Pinched Nerve in the Neck
In the early stages of a pinched nerve in the neck you could attempt some self-care treatments. If pain lasts for more than a few days it would be a good idea to schedule an appointment and visit your doctor for a full diagnosis.
One of the common causes of a pinched nerve in the neck is a muscle spasm or muscle strain putting pressure on the nerve and compressing it. Relaxing the muscle will usually relieve the symptoms you are feeling. Listed below are some self-treatments for a pinched nerve in the neck that you can attempt.
- During the initial stages of an injury it is important that you avoid heat to give the inflammation a chance to reduce; ice will help reduce inflammation and should be applied for the initial 48-72 hour period following injury. Always be certain that there is a sufficient barrier between the ice and your skin and be sure not to apply the ice for more than 20 minutes at a time.
- After inflammation has been reduced, heat may be applied to encourage blood flow and help the healing process. Heat can be applied using a variety of methods, including heat-packs, hot water bottle, moist warm towel, hot shower, or a heating pad. It is important to never leave heat on your skin for more than 20 minutes at a time to avoid a serious burn. Use extreme caution when applying heat with a heating pad; falling asleep with the pad on will likely result in a burn!
- Whether you use a personal massager or have someone give you a massage, loosening the muscle this way should relieve symptoms of a pinched nerve in the neck, if the pinched nerve is caused by a muscle spasm or strain.
- Gentle stretching
- Before you attempt any stretching you should consult with your doctor to be certain that you will not be doing more harm. If your pinched nerve in the neck is caused by a muscle spasm or strain, stretching the muscle could help reduce nerve compression and relieve most of your symptoms.
- NSAIDS (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)
- NSAIDS containing ibuprofen such as Advil or Aleve will help to reduce the inflammation that could be causing your pinched nerve in the neck symptoms. However the drugs should not be considered a permanent solution to your problem as long-term use may lead to problems with your stomach.
If these self-treatment methods fail to provide relief your doctor will start you on conservative treatments such as stronger anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy, and possibly cortisone injections in your neck.
Unless your pinched nerve in the neck is causing serious complications, surgery should never be considered before all other solutions have been exhausted. If after 6 weeks have passed and there is little to no improvement, surgery may then be considered a valid option. If you are considering surgery for your pinched nerve in the neck, be certain that you make the right choice. It will not hurt anyone’s feelings, and it is generally expected, if you decide to seek a secondary opinion.
Ask the surgeon questions about his or her experience and formal training. If you are not comfortable with the answers you receive or the surgeon is not taking the time to explain everything so that you understand what is happening, the surgeon is probably not a good fit for you. Undergoing surgery for a pinched nerve in the neck is stressful; you should feel comfortable and confident about the procedure so your mind is at ease.