What Is A "Pinched Nerve" And How Can Chiropractic Help?
When patients tell me about a "pinched nerve" they are often visualizing a hard bone pinching and pressing down a soft nerve. However, that's not what really happens. Your nerves don't really get "pinched" - so what are we really talking about?
What Is It?
It's not the vertebra that is actually pinching, but rather the vertebra out of alignment creates a hostile environment. The surround tissues become inflamed, which can lead to swelling and irritation at the nerve. It doesn't take much pressure for the nerve to become affected in a way that will cause symptoms such as pain, numbness, or tingling. In many cases, it's the irritated or herniated disc that leads to pressure on the nerve.
Pinched nerves can occur in any of the regions of the spine. This can be more accurately referred to as a radiculopathy. Once the nerve is affected, you may experience symptoms anywhere along the entire nerve pathway. It's not uncommon for a pinched nerve to cause neck pain that radiates down one or both of your arms or low back pain that radiates down your legs.
Here are ways the affected nerve may cause symptoms:
- In the cervical spine, you can feel a stiff neck, and pain or numbness in the shoulder and arm.
- A pinched lower back nerve can cause pain in your back, hips, buttocks or legs.
- In the middle back, the pinched nerve can cause pain in your chest area.
- Pain in the spine or down the arms or legs (sharp or a dull ache)
- Muscle weakness in the arms, legs, or hand strength
- Tingling ( or a “pins and needles” sensation)
- Sensation that your hand or foot has "fallen asleep"
A pinched nerve can be painful, but a combination of ice, avoiding painful movements or activities, chiropractic care, stretches, exercises, and spinal decompression can help you experience a full recovery.
What Causes A Pinched Nerve?
- Spinal misalignment, what chiropractors call a "subluxation," can create nerve pressure and inflammation at the level of misalignment.
- Osteoarthritis, often called “wear and tear” arthritis can affect the discs and the spaces where the nerves exit the spine. Over time spinal discs can lose hydration and flatten (this is especially where spinal decompression can be the most helpful). The body starts to deposit calcium, leading to bone growths and bone spurs. These spurs and extra bone can create pressure on nerves.
- A traumatic injury from sports or other accident can result in a pinched nerve. Trauma can come on suddenly and cause a herniated disc where there was no indication of a problem before.
- Awkward lifting, pulling, or twisting movements while lifting can cause a bulging disc. A movement that combines all three (bending, lifting, and twisting) is a common cause of patients coming to our office with severe pain.
- Repetitive movements, like the daily typing on a keyboard, can cause stress in your wrist and hand. This may lead to carpal tunnel syndrome and inflammation in the nerves. The bad posture from working on the computer can also create additional stress on your neck and back leading to pinched nerves.
- Being overweight causes additional pressure on your spinal joints and discs. Particularly if that weight has come from a sedentary lifestyle (no exercise). With no supportive spinal muscles, the full pressure of gravity will go to the spinal joints and discs.
- Weightlifting is great for you, but if you go too far or use bad technique, you can damage your spinal discs and that can lead to a pinched nerve. Heavy back squats and deadlifts done incorrectly can put a tremendous amount of pressure on your discs.
- Pregnancy leads to weight gain, sometimes decreased activity, and a change in how you walk and perform daily activities. This combination can lead to symptoms from irritated nerves.
- Diabetes sufferers can often experience damaged nerves which leads to the numbness, tingling, and associated neuropathy symptoms.
How Do You Know If You Have A "Pinched Nerve"?
You’ll want to visit a healthcare provider about your pinched nerve if it’s not responding to conservative treatment at home. To find the source of the pinched nerve, our doctors will perform a thorough spinal examination. We will evaluate range of motion and perform orthopedic and neurological tests to determine which part of your spine is affected.
There are imaging tests that can help determine more information:
- X-rays: Spinal x-rays can show misalignment, postural changes, degenerative changes, fractures, and narrowing of the openings where the nerves exit the spine.
- Computed Tomography (CT) Scan: A CT scan shows 3D images and more detail than an x-ray.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): An MRI shows the soft tissue and what may be causing the nerve compression. The test will also give insights into any spinal cord damage.
- Electromyography (EMG): While the other tests are essentially "photos" that show us what's happening inside the spine, they don't demonstrate function. An EMG measures electrical impulses and, along with a nerve conduction study, will determine how well a nerve is functioning and any areas of entrapment.
How Do You Treat A Pinched Nerve?
Once your doctor has determined that a nerve has been affected and it can be treated in our office, we will approach it several ways.
Ice & Rest
While ice is primarily for new injuries, we have seen positive effects in dealing with many types of inflammation. Adding heat may feel good while it's on, but it can cause the spinal discs and surrounding tissues to swell, which will only increase your symptoms. Rest is also a factor, or more appropriately, avoiding the activities that are aggravating the condition. In the case of typing on the computer, you may not be able to stop doing the activity but you can modify how you do it.
Modify Aggravating Activities
Since most of our patients work at a computer all day, we tend to educate around those types of activities. However, any repetitive action will eventually cause an imbalance. Take a look at your average day and look for activities that you do repeatedly or for extended periods. For computer screens, make sure they are high enough and that your work station is set up correctly. Any activities you do frequently will likely need some type of counter movement, like a stretch or exercise. Your chiropractor can help you with addressing your spinal imbalances and coming up with a home exercise program to bring your spine back into balance.
Stretch & Exercise
For posture related problems that may lead to a pinched nerve, you'll either be stretching the area or strengthening it. For your neck, you'll need to stretch the front part of your neck and strengthen the back. For your lower back, you'll want to strengthen the back and improve your core while stretching your hamstrings and hip rotators.
While the nerve may not be technically "pinched" there's definitely pressure. Losing height in the discs between the vertebrae will only create more pressure a.k.a. "compression." Taking pressure of the nerves and discs with spinal decompression therapy goes a long way in helping your inflamed nerve problem. Spinal decompression can be performed on the neck and the low back to target the specific nerve roots that are causing your symptoms.
And Chiropractic Care!
Taking over-the-counter pain relievers will only mask the symptoms you're experiencing without treating its root cause. Chiropractic care is designed to treat pain and discomfort by improving mobility in the joints of your body. Your brain and spinal cord make up your central nervous system from which every other nerve emanates. When the bones in your spine (vertebrae) are misaligned, the nerves send pain signals to your brain, signaling a problem.
We often think the solution is to take a few pain relievers and ignore the problem, but the misalignment remains. Unless the vertebrae are brought back into alignment, the nerve will continue to misfire. Chiropractic care realigns the bones in your spine and allows your nerves to communicate with the rest of your body the way they should. Not only do you experience less back and neck pain and fewer headaches, you feel happier, more energetic, and ready to tackle whatever life throws at you.
Having a pinched nerve doesn’t mean you are doomed to a life of pain.
Let CORE Chiropractic help you get back on track with personalized chiropractic care, spinal decompression, stretching recommendations and a custom treatment plan. Call today for your consultation, or schedule an appointment online today.