Symptoms of a pinched nerve in the neck can include neck pain, hand and arm numbness, and shoulder weakness. Treatments like physical therapy and immobilizing the neck can help ease pain and relieve pressure on the nerve.
A pinched nerve occurs when a nerve becomes irritated or compressed. The medical term for when this happens in the neck is cervical radiculopathy.
This article explains what may cause a pinched nerve, how doctors diagnose it, what types of treatment can help, and when to contact a doctor.
The upper end of the spine has seven small bones, or vertebrae, that begin at the bottom of the skull and end at the shoulders. These seven vertebrae make up the cervical spine.
Nerves branch out from the spinal cord and exit through small openings between the vertebrae called foramen.
When these nerves become irritated or compressed, it can result in neck pain and sometimes pain, numbness, or tingling that runs down the arm into the hand.
A pinched nerve in the neck may cause the following symptoms:
- pain in the neck
- numbness or tingling in the arm and hand
- weakness in the shoulder, arm, hand, or all three
- loss of sensation in the arm, hand, or both
The above symptoms may also occur with movement of the neck.
Typically, to reach a diagnosis, doctors will ask about symptoms and then examine the neck, shoulders, arms, and hands.
Oftentimes, they will also ask the person to move their arms and neck to see where they are experiencing weakness or pain.
There are several tests that doctors can perform to help them diagnose a pinched nerve in the neck.
The Spurling test
The Spurling test
Doctors may find it useful alongside other diagnostic tests for cervical radiculopathy.
An X-ray is one type of imaging tests that can aid in the diagnosis of a pinched nerve in the neck.
It can show the alignment of the vertebrae in the neck. It can also demonstrate narrowing of the foramen and disc spaces between the vertebrae.
CT scans show bone in more detail than an X-ray. Sometimes, doctors order them in the workup of a person with a suspected pinched nerve.
With the use of MRI, doctors can see the vertebrae, soft tissues, and nerves in greater detail than with other scan types.
MRI scans can show how severe the nerve compression in the neck is. They will also allow doctors to see whether a herniated disk is causing compression of the nerve or the spinal cord.
An EMG test measures the speed of transmitting electrical impulses along a nerve. Sometimes, doctors will order this test to determine whether a nerve or group of nerves is functioning properly.
In the case of a suspected pinched nerve in the neck, an EMG can help doctors determine which nerve has become irritated or compressed and where exactly the compression occurs.
As the disks degenerate, their height decreases, and the foramen — the holes in between the vertebrae where the nerves from the spinal cord exit — narrow.
Disk degeneration places excess pressure between the disks and on the nerve roots, and this process can lead to a pinched nerve. The most commonly affected nerve root in cervical radiculopathy is the C7 nerve root, followed by the C6 and C8 nerve roots.
Risk factors for developing cervical radiculopathy may include:
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) suggests that in some individuals, the pain may subside after a few days or weeks.
However, it is common for the symptoms of a pinched nerve in the neck to return over time.
If the symptoms of cervical radiculopathy do not clear up, there are nonsurgical and surgical treatments available.
A soft cervical collar can help minimize the amount of movement in the neck and thus reduce irritation of the nerve root.
However, a person should not wear a cervical collar for
Physical therapy can help with a pinched nerve in the neck. Exercises aim to strengthen and stretch the neck muscles, thereby improving flexibility.
Sometimes, traction can help gently stretch the joints in the neck and relieve pressure on the nerve.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are a type of pain relievers. They can reduce pain if the pinched nerve becomes irritated or inflamed. NSAIDs are widely available, and a person can purchase them from a pharmacy without a prescription.
Steroid injections use anti-inflammatory medication to ease pain. Doctors may offer a person a steroid injection if an MRI scan has confirmed a pinched nerve in the neck and if other treatments have not proven helpful.
Steroid injections can be very effective in providing long-term pain relief in people with cervical radiculopathy.
Surgical options vary depending on the cause of the pinched nerve.
Surgery aims to relieve pressure on the affected nerve and, in some cases, improve the alignment of the cervical spine.
Anterior cervical discectomy and fusion
The aim of anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) is to remove the disk or bone spurs causing nerve compression.
During the procedure, the surgeon removes the disk and bone spurs causing the compression. They then fuse the two affected vertebrae together, which stabilizes the damaged part of the cervical spine.
Artificial disk replacement
This procedure involves removing the herniated disk and replacing it with an artificial disk made of metal or plastic.
Posterior cervical laminoforaminotomy
This procedure shaves down the back of the spinal canal and removes any bone, bone spurs, tissues, and disk material that may be causing a pinched nerve.
Sometimes, a person may be able to treat a pinched nerve in the neck at home with any of the following:
- heat packs
- cold packs
Cervical traction devices are also available for use at home.
It is advisable to call a doctor if symptoms do not clear up after a few days or weeks or if a person experiences any of the following symptoms:
- stiffness in the neck
- nausea or vomiting
- unexplained weight loss
- vision problems
- severe headaches
- sensitivity to light or sound
- altered mental state
These symptoms may indicate a more serious problem with the spine and may require further tests and treatment.
Studies cited in a 2023 review of research suggest that, for many people, pain from a pinched nerve in the neck may resolve
However, in more severe cases, nerve damage may not improve, and people may need more significant treatment, like surgery.