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Pinched Nerve

If you have pain or numbness, you may have a pinched nerve. Learn why it happens and how to treat.
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Last updated March 26, 2021

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What is a pinched nerve?

A pinched nerve is a condition where something near the nerve pushes on it, causing it to not function or result in pain. Other names for a pinched nerve are: Compression neuropathy, radiculopathy, compressed nerve, mononeuropathy

When a herniated disc is putting pressure on a spinal nerve in your lower back, you may notice pain traveling down the back of your leg. If there is a pinched median nerve in your wrist, it could lead to numbness, pain, and weakness in your hand. (Known as carpal tunnel syndrome.)

A compressed nerve can create sensations like pins and needles, numbness, muscle weakness, or pain. It can happen in many areas of your body, such as your neck, arms, hands, back, legs, or feet. Where you feel the pain depends on the location of the nerve.

Most common symptoms

Dr. Rx

Symptoms are in very specific areas where the nerve travels. The sensation is described as electric, stabbing, or cramping-like. Sometimes there is no pain, and the symptoms are mainly numbness or weakness. - Dr. Brian Walcott

You can feel the symptoms of a pinched nerve almost anywhere in the body. But there are some similarities.

  • Sensations change and can include pins and needles, burning, numbness.
  • Sharp pain that spreads.
  • Muscle weakness.

The location of symptoms depends on where the nerve is.

  • Wrist: in the hand, but most often in the thumb, index, middle, and ring finger.
  • Elbow: forearm and hand—most commonly in the little finger and side of the hand.
  • Underarm: weakness of hands or fingers, sensations in the back of the hand.
  • Neck: felt in the neck, shoulder, arm, or hand.
  • Lower back: felt in the back, legs, or feet.
  • Outer leg: felt in the lower leg and foot, especially when raising the foot at the ankle.

If you have diabetes, you may confuse a pinched nerve in the lower back with nerve damage from diabetes. Nerve damage from diabetes probably won’t cause any back pain. Also, symptoms usually start in the feet and will be felt in both leg.

Pinched nerve causes

A pinched nerve is caused by too much pressure on a nerve. It’s usually an activity that’s repeated or nonstop for a long time. For example, crossing legs can lead to numbness around the outside of your leg and top of the foot. When legs are crossed, the nerve near your outer leg bone gets compressed by your other leg.

A pinched nerve also happens because of pressure from other structures inside your body, like a herniated disc. In this case, symptoms may be worse when leaning forward and improve when leaning backward.

Aging-related issues such as bone loss or from activities like lifting weight are more likely to cause lower back and neck pain.

Pinching of the median nerve in the wrist is called carpal tunnel syndrome

What will happen if a pinched nerve goes untreated?

Make an appointment with your doctor. In most cases, it is not an emergency, and often the pinched nerve will resolve on its own.

But if you notice skin changes, unintentional weight loss, fever, chills, night sweats, weakness, or bowel or bladder symptoms, contact your doctor.

How do you heal a pinched nerve?

The location of the pinched nerve determines how it is treated. Though they all try to relieve the pressure.

For instance, if you have a pinched nerve at the wrist, then your doctor may give you a brace to wear at night to keep your hand from bending. Your doctor may also recommend not doing any activity that puts pressure on these nerves, such as typing.

Pinched nerve treatment

While medications won’t help a pinched nerve, they can help relieve pain. Talk to your doctor about the best treatment options for you.

Follow-up with your doctor within six to eight weeks if you continue to have symptoms, sooner if your weakness or pain gets worse. Many pinched nerves get better after changing your activities, doing physical therapy, and taking medication.

If symptoms don’t improve, your doctor may prescribe medications or additional tests or treatments, including

  • Nerve conduction studies and electromyography (EMG) help determine which nerve is compressed.
  • An epidural injection of a steroid and pain reliever (i.e. lidocaine) close to the nerve(s) causing the pain.
  • Sometimes, surgery is an option when other treatments haven’t worked. For instance, a pinched nerve in the wrist may be helped by surgery to release the carpal tunnel.

Pro Tip

One of the most common misconceptions is: People often think that a pinched nerve from a bulging disc in your spine requires surgery to fix. The opposite is true. Most people recover completely without surgery. - Dr. Walcott

How to prevent a pinched nerve

Certain lifestyle changes can lower your risk of a pinched nerve such as quitting smoking, losing weight if you are overweight, avoiding extreme exercises. Avoid repetitive activities such as typing for without breaks or lifting weights. Also, try not to put pressure on parts of your body, particularly your arms and legs, for a long period.

Share your story

Dr. Walcott is a dual fellowship trained neurosurgeon that specializes in neurovascular disease. His clinical interests are in the management of patients with stroke, brain aneurysms, arteriovenous malformations, cavernous malformations, carotid artery disease, moyamoya disease, brain tumors, and spinal cord tumors. He performs both surgery and minimally invasive, endovascular procedures.

Dr. Walcott received his undergraduate degree from Seton Hall University. He then went on to graduate from medical school at Loyola University Chicago, where he was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha honor society. He completed a residency in neurological surgery at Harvard Medical School & the Massachusetts General Hospital. Following residency, Dr. Walcott joined the faculty at Harvard Medical School as an attending neurosurgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He then went on to complete a fellowship in neurovascular surgery at the University of California San Francisco, with an emphasis on cerebrovascular bypass and minimally invasive skull base surgery. Additionally, he completed a fellowship in endovascular neurosurgery at the University of Southern California. His research interests are focused on investigating the genetic and molecular basis of vascular malformations, brain edema, and cerebral ischemia. He has authored over 150 peer-reviewed scientific publications and his research been funded by the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, and the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Walcott is a member of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, and the Society of Neurointerventional Surgery.

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