A pinched nerve is a nerve that has become irritated or compressed. The nerve is not necessarily pinched, but people use this term to refer to a range of symptoms. A pinched nerve can occur at various sites in the body, including the neck. When it affects the neck, doctors call it cervical radiculopathy.
A person with a pinched nerve in the neck may experience tingling, numbness, or weakness in their neck, shoulders, hands, or arms. Pinched nerves often appear with age or due to arthritis or wear and tear on the spine.
Many people with pinched nerves are reluctant to exercise because of pain and tingling. However, staying still can actually make the pain worse because it can cause tension and wasting in nearby muscles.
The following exercises may help relieve the pain and discomfort of a pinched nerve in the neck:
Side bends help reduce neck and back tension while building strength. To do a side bend:
- Stand with the hands clasped over the head.
- Keep the neck and head straight.
- Lean slowly from the core to the right and then the left, without letting the body bend forward or arch backward.
- Repeat 10 times.
- For a more intense workout, add handheld weights.
Sitting in the same position for long periods, especially with crossed legs, can damage the nerves and muscles. Instead, take frequent walking breaks.
Try to walk around the house or office for 10 minutes for every hour of sitting.
To get the most out of walking and help ease a pinched nerve, keep the head in a neutral position. The ears should be level with the shoulders, and the jaw should be loose, not clenched.
Moving the shoulders can help reduce tension in the neck. It can also alleviate the headaches that some people get with pinched nerves and muscle tightness.
To exercise the shoulders:
- Shrug the shoulders slowly up and down for 30 seconds.
- Rest for a few seconds.
- Next, roll the shoulders forward and up toward the ears, then back down and back, pushing the shoulder blades together.
- Repeat this move for 30 seconds, then reverse the direction.
Yoga involves the slow movement of the body through a wide range of positions while focusing on engaging each muscle group. This practice is an ideal low impact option for people dealing with pain.
Child's Pose, in particular, can be helpful for people with a pinched nerve in the neck. To do Child's Pose:
- Start by sitting on the heels on a mat, with the tops of the feet flat on the floor.
- Learn the body forward until it meets the thighs.
- Extend the arms straight out above the head, with the hands flat on the floor.
- Hold for 30 seconds.
Some people find that performing twists can provide relief from muscle tension and nerve-related numbness. To do a twist:
- Sit in a comfortable chair with the feet flat on the floor and the back straight.
- Put the right hand on the left knee while slowly twisting to the left.
- Hold the stretch for 5 seconds and then return to facing forward.
- Repeat on the other side, placing the left hand on the right knee.
Neck tilts stretch the muscles at the back of the neck. To do this stretch:
- Stand or sit in a neutral position, then draw the chin in toward the neck.
- Feel the stretch in the back of the neck.
- Next, gently tilt the head up toward the ceiling, extending the chin up and out.
- Repeat 5–10 times.
Head turns can restore range of motion, but they may feel difficult at first. To do a head turn:
- Sit or stand in a neutral position, then turn the face to one side to look over the shoulder.
- Hold for 5 seconds.
- Return the head to its neutral position.
- Turn it again, this time to the other side.
- Repeat 10 times.
The median nerve runs from the shoulder down to the end of the forearm. To relieve pain and numbness, a person can try doing a median nerve slider:
- Begin in a neutral sitting position.
- Position the palm in front of the face and look at the hand.
- Next, extend the arm out to the side so that the fingertips point toward the ceiling, and the wrist is below the shoulders.
- Follow the hand with the eyes.
- Return to the starting position.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
This exercise can also relieve the symptoms of a pinched nerve. To do it:
- Stand in a neutral position.
- Put the palm together in a "praying" position, pointing the fingers up.
- Lift the elbows and lower the wrists so that the lower arms are almost parallel to the floor.
- Push the elbows as far to the right as possible, then as far to the left as possible.
- Repeat 10 times.
The ulnar nerve goes from the neck to the hand. It is the nerve responsible for a person feeling pain in the "funny bone." To use ulnar nerve towel sliders to relieve pinched nerve symptoms, a person can:
- Hold one end of a towel in the hand on the side of the pinched nerve, placing it near the head.
- Let the rest of the towel drop behind the back and grab it with the other hand near the lower back.
- Pull the towel upward with the top hand as far as it will go.
- Pull it back down with the bottom hand.
- Do not hold the stretch at the top or bottom but keep the arms moving for 30 seconds.
A pinched nerve may heal on its own. However, if it does not improve with rest and gentle stretching at home, a person can see a doctor for treatment.
Treatment usually focuses on reducing pain and preventing secondary injuries. In addition to exercises and physical therapy, a doctor may recommend:
- a collar to immobilize the neck
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen
- cold therapy with ice packs
- massage therapy
- surgery, in rare cases
Many injuries and illnesses can cause pain, numbness, and weakness. Anyone experiencing chronic numbness or pain in the neck should speak to a doctor before trying exercises for a pinched nerve.
For many people, an individualized physical therapy plan offers quick results and significant improvements in strength and mobility.