An injury, a herniated disc, or an underlying medical condition can cause a pinched nerve in the back — resulting in pain, numbness, or tingling sensations.
The symptoms of a pinched nerve in the back sometimes also affect surrounding areas.
Below, we investigate what a pinched nerve in the back is, what it may feel like, and when to see a doctor. We also explore the causes and treatments, as well as exercises that may help.
Nerves in the spine can be compressed by surrounding bone or tissue. If this happens, a person has a pinched nerve in their back.
Nerves are responsible for sending signals to the brain. When a nerve is compressed, the pressure disrupts the signals, resulting in symptoms.
A pinched nerve often causes pain, numbness, and tingling. The location of these symptoms depends on that of the compressed nerve.
If a pinched nerve is at the top of the spine, symptoms may affect the neck or arms. Doctors call this issue cervical radiculopathy.
Symptoms of a pinched nerve in the upper back can include:
- pain that starts in the neck and may travel down the arm
- tingling sensations in the hand, or specifically the fingers
- weakness in the arm, shoulder, or hand
Nerves in the lower back can also become compressed. Doctors refer to this as lumbar radiculopathy. This condition often manifests as sciatica.
Symptoms of a pinched nerve in the lower back can include:
- pain that radiates from the lower back to the legs or feet
- numbness and tingling in the legs or feet
- muscle spasms or weakness
If a person does not experience tingling or numbness, they may have a different type of back pain, such as muscle pain. This can occur due to wear and tear, sprains, or weakness.
- A herniated disk: The disks between the vertebrae in the spine can become compressed and bulge, putting pressure on nearby nerves.
- Spinal stenosis: This refers to a narrowing of the spinal column, which puts excess pressure on the nerves around the spinal cord.
- Arthritis: This causes inflammation around joints and bones, which can increase pressure on nerves in the spine.
- Bone spurs: A bone spur is an extra growth of bone, which can form on the spine and compress surrounding nerves, causing reoccurring episodes of pain.
- Spondylolisthesis: This involves a vertebra in the lower spine dislodging and pinching nerves.
- Infection: The vertebrae or disks of the spine can become infected, leading to inflammation and nerve pain.
Certain factors make developing back pain more likely. They include:
- Aging: The disks between the vertebrae lose their ability to cushion with age, increasing a person’s risk of a pinched nerve. Spinal stenosis also becomes more likely with age.
- Physical fitness: People who do little exercise or who have weaker abdominal muscles are more likely to develop back pain, possibly from an injury. The same is true for people who are generally inactive but then try intense physical exercise.
- Overweight or obesity: Both place extra strain on the back, making back pain more likely.
- Uneven posture: If the neck, shoulders, spinal column, or hips are out of alignment for prolonged periods, it can place pressure on nerves in the back.
A doctor may be able to diagnose a pinched nerve with only a physical examination. They may also perform tests to check the person’s reflexes and muscle movement.
The doctor may ask the person to demonstrate their range of motion, such as by lifting a leg while keeping it straight. This can also indicate which movements trigger pain. All of this information can help with a diagnosis.
In some cases, the doctor may need further tests to determine the exact location and cause of a pinched nerve. Tests may include:
The right treatment depends on the severity and cause of a pinched nerve.
Some people can treat a pinched nerve in the back at home, while others require professional treatment. Recovery may take days or weeks.
Plenty of rest and gentle movements can help the body repair. Avoiding strenuous exercise and heavy lifting is key to supporting recovery and preventing further damage.
Over-the-counter pain relief medication, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, may help relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
If a person has pain in the top of the spine, a cervical collar may help. This is a soft, padded support structure that wraps around the neck, helping the neck muscles rest and relieving nerve pressure caused by neck movement.
When pressure on a nerve is severe or chronic, a doctor may suggest oral or injected steroids to reduce swelling and pain, particularly any that radiates to the lower body.
Some people require surgery to correct the cause of pressure and stabilize the spine.
People with numbness, tingling, weakness, or pain should contact a doctor before trying any exercises, as some can make pinched nerve symptoms worse.
Once the pain improves, certain exercises can support recovery, help restore movement, and prevent the issue from returning.
When looking for exercises to help with back pain, it is best to seek professional advice.
The following exercises may help. But — as always — if pain, numbness, or tingling worsen, stop the exercise right away.
To try an exercise for the neck and top of the spine:
- Sit or stand upright, facing forward.
- Place the fingers of one hand on your chin and gently push the head back, keeping the shoulders in place and the head facing forward.
- A person should feel a stretch in the back of the neck and a contraction in the front of the neck.
- Hold the position for 1–2 seconds, then gently release it.
- Repeat 8–10 times, three to four times per day.
- Continue for 2 weeks after the symptoms resolve to help prevent them from returning.
To try an exercise for the lower back:
- Lie on the back, with the legs bent and the feet flat on the floor.
- Gently rock the knees from side to side, allowing the back to rotate slightly.
- Only move within a range that is pain-free.
- Repeat this 10–15 times per session.
To try an exercise for sciatica:
- Lie flat facing downward.
- Bend the elbows and rest the forearms flat on the floor.
- Look straight down at the floor, keeping the neck straight.
- Gently arch the back upward, keeping the hips and forearms pressed into the floor.
- Keep the neck straight, without bending it back.
- Hold the position for 5–10 seconds, remembering to breathe.
- Gently lower the back to the floor.
- Repeat the stretch 8–10 times per session.
Proper alignment of the head, neck, and spine is also important for reducing back pain; an uneven posture can put extra pressure on the nerves.
To put less strain on the neck and back, be sure to sit and stand with the shoulders back and the ears aligned with the shoulders.
Anyone with the following symptoms should seek immediate medical care.
- sudden, severe, or continuous numbness, weakness, or paralysis in an arm or leg
- loss of control of bladder or bowel function
- loss of sensation in the genital or anal area
- severe pain or weakness in the legs, making it difficult to walk or rise from sitting
These symptoms may indicate compression of the spinal cord, which is a medical emergency.
Also, see a doctor if back pain continues without improvement for a few weeks or symptoms are severe or getting worse.
Most people make a full recovery from a pinched nerve in the back.
Some find that symptoms resolve with home care. Getting plenty of rest, avoiding strenuous activity, and taking pain medication can help.
Certain gentle exercises may also help, but check with a doctor first, and stop any exercise that causes or worsens symptoms.
More severe or chronic pain may require steroid injections or surgery.
If a person experiences sudden paralysis, loss of bowel or bladder control, or severe weakness, they should receive emergency care.