Radiculopathy — or a pinched nerve in the spine — can cause symptoms, including pain, weakness, and numbness. Pain relievers, steroids, and physical therapy can often treat radiculopathy without surgery.
Radiculopathy is a general term that refers to the symptoms caused by a nerve root that is pinched as it exits the spinal column. This can happen in any part of the back and includes sciatica, cervical radiculopathy, and thoracic radiculopathy.
Read more to learn about what causes radiculopathy, what it feels like, and how to treat it.
The spine is a stacked structure made up of
Each region of the spine has a specific name and function. They are the:
- cervical spine or neck
- thoracic spine or mid-back
- lumbar spine or lower back
- sacrum, connecting the spine to the hips
- coccyx or tail bone
Each vertebra is cushioned from its neighbor by an intervertebral disc. This prevents the vertebrae from rubbing on top of each other.
When injuries occur, these discs can become damaged or inflamed, which can cause compression or irritation of a nearby nerve root. Depending on which nerve is compressed, a person can experience pain or other symptoms in regions that correspond to that nerve function.
Although people can develop radiculopathy as the result of an injury, it may occur without an immediate trigger.
Degenerative disc disease and osteoarthritis most commonly cause radiculopathy. However, a variety of conditions or injuries can cause it,
- herniated discs
- spinal stenosis, a condition where the spinal canal narrows
- bone spurs
- spinal tumors
- osteoarthritis or spinal arthritis
- compression fractures
spondylolisthesis(when a vertebra moves and rests on the vertebra below)
- heavy lifting
- prolonged repetitive movements
- operating vibrating equipment
Because the nerves extending from the spinal cord travel to different parts of the body, people will experience different symptoms depending on which nerve root is compressed.
Cervical radiculopathy occurs when a nerve root in the neck or upper back is compressed.
- pain in the neck, shoulder, upper back, or arm
- muscle weakness
- radiating pain
Thoracic radiculopathy happens when nerve root compression or irritation occurs in the mid-back region. This is an uncommon condition that may be misdiagnosed as shingles, heart, abdominal, or gallbladder complications.
Symptoms associated with thoracic radiculopathy include:
- burning or shooting pain in the rib, side, or abdomen
- band-like pain
- numbness and tingling
A person may experience pain in the low back, legs, and hips when the nerve root compression or irritation occurs in the lower part of the back.
Lumbar radiculopathy is also known as sciatica. Symptoms include pain and numbness in the low back, hips, buttock, leg, or foot, ad they are usually made worse with long periods of sitting or walking.
In some cases, nerves affecting the bowel and bladder can become compressed, leading to bowel or bladder incontinence or loss of control.
- sharp pain starting in the back
- sharp pain with sitting or coughing
- numbness or weakness in the leg and foot
- numbness or tingling in the back or leg
- sensation or reflex changes, hypersensitivity
In addition to a physical exam and symptom review, doctors may diagnose radiculopathy using:
- Imaging tests: These include X-ray, MRI, and CT scans.
- Nerve function tests: This can be electrical impulse testing called electromyography (EMG).
Typically, radiculopathy is treatable without surgery. Depending on the severity, a doctor may recommend medication, including:
- non-steroidal drugs, such as ibuprofen, aspirin or naproxen
- oral corticosteroids or injectable steroids
- pain medications, such as gabapentin
They may also recommend other treatments, such as:
- physical therapy
- a soft cervical collar
- ice and heat application
In some cases, doctors may recommend surgery to treat the cause of the nerve compression. Some surgical procedures include repair of a herniated disc, widening of the spinal canal space, removing a bone spur, or fusing the bones.
Some strategies may prevent nerve compression pain. These include:
- maintaining good posture, even when driving
- proper lifting techniques
- performing regular physical activity
- developing core strength
- maintaining a moderate weight
- stretching regularly
Below are the answers to some commonly asked questions.
Does radiculopathy ever go away?
Yes, radiculopathy can go away with proper treatment. A doctor may recommend pain relief medications in addition to physical therapy, ice, heat, and more.
Is radiculopathy the same as sciatica?
Not technically — sciatica is a type of radiculopathy. All sciatica is radiculopathy. However, not all radiculopathy is sciatica.
How long does radiculopathy take to heal?
This depends on what type of radiculopathy a person has and how it is treated. Some can resolve quickly — for example, steroid injections can provide relief in as little as 2 weeks. However, it can take months or years to resolve.
What happens if cervical radiculopathy is left untreated?
If it remains untreated, a person’s pain will likely get worse. The damage can also get worse, and in some cases, may be permanent.
Is cervical radiculopathy a disability?
Not necessarily. If a person’s condition is serious and debilitating enough, it may be considered a disability. However, not all people with radiculopathy experience significant disabilities.
To legally be considered a disability in the United States, a person with radiculopathy must have:
- aresthesia, or muscle fatigue
- neurological symptoms on physical exam
- a test showing nerve root damage (CT, MRI, or X-ray)
- a need for assistive devices such as crutches or a walker
Radiculopathy happens when a nerve root in the spine is pinched or damaged. It can cause symptoms including pain, weakness, and numbness.
A person can manage the condition with medication, physical therapy, and immobilization. In some cases, a doctor may recommend surgery.