What is a Pinched Nerve?

Common Causes of Pinched Nerves:

Diagram of a herniated spinal disc The term pinched nerve refers to a nerve root that is compressed or damaged by arthritis, a bulging disc, or a herniated disc. Each of the nerve roots exits the spine in a small hole which is between the back of the disc and the front of the facet joint. The disc can push into the hole, or foramen. The small facet joint can enlarge if it is damaged. A damaged facet joint can also push into the nerve's exit hole. If the hole becomes too small, the nerve can become pinched. The term pinched nerve is not a medical name. It is, however, a commonly used phrase which describes the cause of arm or leg pain due a spine injury.

Drawing of a human spine showing how a herniated disc pinches a nerve to cause painThe difference between midline neck or back pain, and pain in an arm or leg is significant. Pain in the middle of the neck or back is usually due to arthritis, a broken bone, or a torn disc. This type of pain, called cervicalgia in the neck and lumbago in the back, is treated differently than the pain from a pinched nerve.

Neck pain (cervicalgia) and back pain (lumbago) are usually treated conservatively with medications, exercise, lifestyle changes, or occasionally a brace. Injections and surgery are rarely required for neck pain or back pain. Occasionally trigger point injections can control muscle spasm (which is common when the pain is severe) and facet blocks can calm pain due to an arthritic joint. Operations are usually only considered when there is a broken or unstable vertebral bone. One test which can locate the cause of the pain is called a discogram. If the discogram shows that the disc is permanently damaged, and the source of the pain, there are several options including, for example IDET procedures.

Arm or leg pain which radiates to the hand or foot, and which is caused by a pinched nerve, can also be treated conservatively. Steroid injections can be very helpful. See epidurals, and selective blocks. If the pain does not go away after 6 to 12 weeks, is disabling, or is associated with signs of permanent nerve damage, surgery may be required. The surgery is usually a simple minimally invasive procedure that takes about 45 minutes to an hour and can be done as an out patient. It can sometimes be done using a needle and without any skin incision. See also bloodless surgery, minimally invasive surgery, cervical discectomy, disc decompression, and lumbar discectomy.

When Arm or Leg Pain is an Emergency:

You should see a spine specialist immediately if you have the following: severe pain shooting down your arm or leg; if you have numbness or weakness; if you have had a recent injury; if the pain lasts more than three to six weeks; if your pain becomes worse at night or wakes you up from sleep; if the pain is accompanied by a fever; or, if you have bladder or bowel problems.

What If I Have a Herniated Disk?

If you have a herniated disk, you should see a spine specialist. The doctor will first diagnose the cause of the problem. Unless there is severe pain or weakness, conservative care will usually be recommended. Exercise and pain medications are used first. Chiropractic or acupuncture may be helpful. If these do not help, a steroid shot may be advised. Surgery is usually the last resort.

Leg Pain or Sciatica:

The term sciatica simply means leg pain. It is the pain that travels along the path of the sciatic nerve and is caused by damage to the small roots that form the nerve.

The sciatic nerve is the longest and largest nerve in the body. It is three-quarters of an inch in diameter and two feet long. It originates in the sacral plexus in the pelvis and extends to the lower leg. The sciatic nerve and its nerve branches serve motor and sensory functions (movement and feeling) in the thigh, knee, calf, ankle, foot, and toes.

Other Causes of Arm or Leg Pain?

Not all arm and leg pain is caused by herniated discs. Other causes include: fibromyalgia (a generalized pain syndrome); facet syndrome (damage to the small joints in the back); referred pain from the chest or abdomen; an injury to the arm or leg itself; or one of hundreds of uncommon medical problems. See a doctor if you are unsure.

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See also Q&A on Neck Pain and Back Pain. Please feel free to look around our web site. You will find a great deal of information about pinched nerves. You will also find information about the various treatments for pinched nerves, neck pain, and back pain.

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The information in this site briefly describes issues related to medical treatments, and has been licensed by from Northern California Neurosurgery Medical Group, Inc., who is solely responsible for said content.  This web site is not a substitute for good medical care or for a consultation with a spine specialist. It should not be used to plan your treatment. The well considered advice of a specialist who has personally examined you is always superior to even the best internet pages.

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Last modified: 07/27/08