Nerves carry messages from your brain through the spinal cord to every part of your body. When too much pressure is applied to a nerve by muscles, tendons, cartilage, or bones, it becomes pinched, or compressed. The pressure produces inflammation and causes the nerve to function improperly. If the pressure is relieved within a short time, nerve function returns to normal, but if the nerve remains compressed for a long time, permanent damage is possible. Common sites for pinched nerves include the neck, back, elbows, wrists, and legs. When you have a pinched nerve, sometimes symptoms go away through self-care, and sometimes other treatment is necessary.
Pinched nerves have many causes. Some people seem to be genetically inclined to conditions leading to pinched nerves. Overuse of your shoulders, wrists, or hands through repetitive motions during sports, jobs, or hobbies leads to pinched nerves. Because women have smaller carpal tunnels, they are much more likely to have carpal tunnel syndrome, which is caused by pinched nerves, than men. Osteoarthritis causes bone spurs that narrow the channels in which your nerves move, causing pinched nerves. Other conditions that compress nerves include poor posture, obesity, and pregnancy. Sometimes simply holding your body in an awkward position during sleep can bring about a pinched nerve.
Often pain is the only symptom. This might be pain in the area of the compression, radiating pain, or pain that spreads down the length of the limbs. You might experience numbness or the sensation that the area the nerve affects has fallen asleep. A tingling or “pins and needles” sensation sometimes occurs. The area may manifest twitching or uncharacteristic muscle weakness. Moving your head, neck, or limbs in certain ways might exacerbate the pain. Sometimes the symptoms are worse when you try to sleep.
Often, resting the affected area and avoiding the activity that brought about the pinched nerve is all you need to do. For mild pinched nerves try taking a hot shower, applying alternating heat and ice, or using a hand-held massager. Sometimes moving around relieves pressure on a nerve. Do some simple range of motion stretches or take a walk. If these simple remedies do not relieve the pain, over-the-counter medication such as aspirin or ibuprofen may reduce inflammation and swelling. If pain is severe, your doctor may prescribe prescription-strength pain medication. For some specific pinched nerve conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, your doctor may have you wear a splint to prevent your wrists from flexing. A physical therapist can show you how to do specific exercises that stretch and strengthen muscles to help relieve pressure on the nerve. As a last resort, your doctor may recommend surgery to relieve carpal tunnel syndrome or remove bone spurs or part of a herniated disk in your spine.
To prevent compressed nerves, always try to maintain good posture. Watch your weight, as obesity can lead to pinched nerves. Keep a regular fitness program that includes stretching and strengthening exercises. If you regularly engage in repetitive activities, take frequent breaks and stretch overused body parts.
Most pinched nerves are relieved through non-surgical treatments. If you play a sport or have a job or hobby through which pinched nerves are likely to occur, remember that prevention is much easier and less stressful than treatment.