A pinched nerve can be incredibly uncomfortable. Although not always a serious issue, it can lead to pain and numbness that in some cases prove to be debilitating. Nerve impingements in the neck and back are not uncommon – many times they will resolve on their own, but at other times they can recur over and over, causing damage to the nerve and resulting in chronic and marked symptoms. If you’re wondering how to treat a pinched nerve, you’ll be delighted to learn that there are a number of ways to go about taking care of this most uncomfortable problem.
What Is a Pinched Nerve?
A pinched nerve (also known as cervical radiculopathy) commonly occurs in the cervical region of the neck. It can be due to degenerative processes, either from normal wear and tear, or from other conditions such as osteoarthritis. A pinched nerve can also stem from injury or trauma, often in conjunction with a ruptured (herniated) disc. Some common conditions that you may have heard of that involve pinched nerves include sciatica, carpal tunnel syndrome and tennis elbow.
Impingements happen when pressure is put on the nerve, which causes it to send signals of discomfort to the brain. This can happen when it’s caught between two structures, such as it frequently happens in shoulder impingements and repetitive motions, or it can be caused by unyielding pressure from another structure, as happens with a disc herniation.
How to Treat a Pinched Nerve
As mentioned above, in some cases pinched nerves can resolve on their own. In other cases, however, they continue to cause pain or discomfort and can even become worse as time goes by. There are several treatments available for pinched nerves, including both surgical and non-surgical options. Depending on the location and severity of your impingement, your doctor can help guide you in determining how to treat a pinched nerve and advise you on how to avoid them in the future.
Non-Surgical Treatments for a Pinched Nerve
Steroidal injections to decrease swelling in the area of the offending nerve(s), not to mention the nerves themselves. This is a short-term treatment option that may be enough in some cases to return the nerve back to its normal functionality.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (frequently referred to as NSAIDs) are often used alone or in conjunction with other treatments to address swelling and some of the associated pain. These include acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin and naproxen. There are also several prescription NSAIDs your doctor may prefer you use.
Oral corticosteroids may be prescribed to help with pain and inflammation. They are frequently used in conjunction with other treatments to ensure that the body’s inflammatory response does not create excess swelling.
Narcotic painkillers may be prescribed for short-term use. They’re especially helpful in cases where the pain from a pinched nerve has become debilitating. Because they can be addictive, it’s a good idea to talk at length with your doctor about the course of narcotics you’ll be taking and when you can expect to not need them anymore.
Splints to immobilize or limit movement may be recommended if the pinched nerve is easily exacerbated by movement. In the case of carpal tunnel syndrome, a splint is often used as a first treatment to allow the nerves to rest and become less aggravated.
If your pinched nerve is the result of inadequate muscle support, your doctor may want to try a course of physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around the affected area(s). This is sometimes enough to prevent future problems.
Surgical Treatment for a Pinched Nerve
Sometimes, the root cause of your pinched nerve makes it more than just a passing episode. Should none of the above options work adequately, or if it’s determined that the damage to a nerve or its surrounding structures is too great, surgery may be recommended.
A pinched nerve surgery should only be performed by a highly qualified neurosurgeon with a vast amount of experience in the area of nerve decompression surgery. Make sure you talk at length with your prospective surgeon to ensure that he or she is fully comfortable with performing your surgery.
Pinched nerve surgeries are typically minimally invasive, making them quicker and easier to recover from. Depending on the area of the impingement, your neurosurgeon may choose to perform a microdiscectomy, foraminotomy or laminectomy, anterior cervical discectomy (with or without a fusion) or lumbar spine fusion.
Luckily, all of the procedures listed above can be done in a minimally invasive manner. Minimally invasive surgery is perhaps the greatest advent of modern surgery in the last fifty years. The ability to access parts of the anatomy that once required a major open surgery can now be done (in some cases) through an incision smaller than an inch. Recovery times are very short, with most patients returning back to their normal activities in as little as six weeks. In many cases, just a few days is needed for those recovering from surgery to return to basic duties such as bathing, cooking and other minor, non-strenuous activities. Usually, within three or four months, you can be back to your normal activities and enjoying life with less pain and discomfort.
If you experience what you think may be a pinched nerve, seek treatment as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more irreversible damage can be done.