Is a Pinched Nerve Causing Your Pain?

A problem with your nerves can send pain signals haywire. One of the most common problems: a pinched nerve.

pinched nerve

Plastic models of a pinched nerve and herniated disk of a human spine.

© Russiangal | Dreamstime.com

It can be difficult to cope with nerve pain like that caused by a pinched nerve, partly because of the nature of the pain and partly because common over-the-counter painkilling drugs aren’t very effective at treating it.

People who suffer from a pinched nerve or from other types of nerve pain report it as being like an electric shock coursing through their body. Among the other examples of nerve pain: the post-herpetic neuralgia that can follow shingles. (And if you’re wondering, “How long does shingles pain last?” be aware it can continue for months after your illness.)

With nerve pain, it’s also common to feel a tingling or burning sensation. You would expect to feel these sensations if you injure yourself or touch something hot—but when a pinched nerve is under pressure or a damaged nerve is misfiring, you may feel the pain when there is no obvious trigger, and even when you are at rest.

Where can a pinched nerve occur? You can suffer from a pinched nerve at various places in your body. Some common sites include the following.

The Wrists

A condition called carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by a pinched nerve in the wrist. The nerve in question—called the median nerve—runs through the carpal tunnel, a narrow passageway of ligament and bones at the base of the hand.

The carpal tunnel can swell due to irritated tendons, certain medications, diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, or repetitive motions—the type we use when working at a computer keyboard, for example. The swelling compresses the median nerve, resulting in a burning sensation and weakness/numbness in the hand and wrist. The pinched nerve may mean that your fingers feel swollen even though they don’t look it, and your weakened grip strength may make it difficult to form a fist, grasp small objects, or perform other manual tasks.

If you’re experiencing relatively mild symptoms, simple strategies may help—for example, if you experience pain after gripping your toothbrush, try wrapping the handle with tape to make the grip bulkier. If you experience more persistent symptoms from the pinched nerve, wearing a night splint may help; and if symptoms are more severe, a steroid injection can shrink the tissue within the carpal tunnel. A surgical procedure can enlarge the carpal tunnel if conservative approaches aren’t effective at relieving the pressure on your pinched nerve.

The Back

Spinal disk problems (for example, a herniated disk that protrudes out from between the vertebrae) can cause a pinched nerve in the back. If the sciatic nerve is affected, this can result in sciatica. Sciatica manifests as sharp pain that travels from the sciatic nerve in your lower back right down your leg.

Other conditions also can cause pinched nerve pain in the back. Degenerative spondylolisthesis, spondylosis, and spinal stenosis are caused by general wear and tear on the muscles and ligaments of the back. A pinched nerve is often the result because the weakened muscles and ligaments gradually become less able to keep the spinal vertebrae aligned.

Treating Pinched Nerve Pain

While painkillers can help relieve muscular aches and pains, pinched nerve pain isn’t as simple to tackle because the pain often occurs in spasms. Back spasms treatment that can work includes leaning forward while sitting—this can relieve the pain of a pinched nerve in the lower back because it increases the space available for the spinal nerves.

Back pain caused by a pinched nerve also may be eased by anti-seizure drugs such as gabapentin (Neurontin), and pregabalin (Lyrica). Corticosteroid injections into the space around the nerves also can help relieve pressure on the nerves by reducing inflammation but can only be given a few times a year, because repeated steroid injections can weaken nearby bones and connective tissue. If a herniated spinal disk is causing the pinched nerve, you may need surgery to remove the disk.

Is It an Emergency?

Sometimes nerve pain can be a medical emergency. Contact your doctor if you experience:

  • Numbness and/or weakness in your legs.
  • Bowel or bladder incontinence.

Originally published in June 2016 and updated.

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