Pinched nerves can occur in nearly any part of the human body. It is the term used to describe when compression — too much pressure — is placed on any nerve by the bodily tissues surrounding it.
Sometimes the tissue is swollen muscles or tendons; other times it is pressure from bone or cartilage tissues. Carpal tunnel syndrome, for instance, involves a pinched nerve in the hand or wrist due to swollen tendons, enlarged bone tissue, or degenerated ligaments.
Below, we’re going to cover the causes and symptoms of pinched nerves to help you determine whether this is a problem you are experiencing. Then we’ll share some of the most common at-home, in-office, and surgical treatment options.
Causes of a Pinched Nerve in Your Back
Typically when we envision the onset of a pinched nerve in our back, it’s easy to conjure images of a quick throw-out — you bend over and suddenly can’t get up. While sudden compression can occur from trauma or injury, more often we see a more gradual compression over time.
Stenosis is a narrowing of the nerve passages in the spine caused by a bony overgrowth or bone spurs. A narrowed central canal is known as central stenosis, and spaces where spinal nerves exit from the main canal that has become narrow are classified as foraminal or lateral stenosis.
The largest bundle of nerves outside the central spinal canal is known as your sciatica. It originates in the pelvis and travels down the leg. It is made up of multiple spinal nerves. Issues arise from the nerve being pinched by the piriformis muscle (located behind the larger glute in your buttock) which is responsible for hip rotation and your ability to turn your legs and feet outward.
When normal wear and tear create defects to the body parts that protect your vertebrae, many times it leads to bulging and herniated discs. Herniation can bring about pain when nerves become trapped from bulging or torn disc sacs.
Arthritis in the Spine
As with arthritis in other areas of the body, the condition can cause swelling, which in turn can render your spinal nerves compressed and aching. Rheumatoid Arthritis is a particularly common form that affects the back.
Through the natural process of aging, there are a number of conditions that can develop due to changes and degeneration in bone and tissue structures and positioning. For this reason, we see most pinched nerves first appear among people between 30 and 50.
Symptoms aren’t always debilitating when they first become noticeable, however.
Sure Signs and Symptoms of a Pinched Nerve in Your Back
Our bodies are incredibly adaptable to change — and pain — as we age. Because of this, we don’t always initially recognize the symptoms of pinched or compressed spinal nerves.
That being said, when you pay attention to your body and understand the symptoms of compression, you are more likely to identify (and treat) a pinched nerve before you ever reach the point of throwing out your back.
Some of the sensations you should be on the lookout for include the following:
- Sharp pain (or burning or aching) or a pins-and-needles sensation anywhere in the body. When it occurs from the waist down, this is likely a sign of sciatica problems.
- Sharp pain and muscle spasms can also signal a pinched nerve in the area just above where you’re noticing the symptoms.
- Muscle weakness, balance issues, or diminished reflexes can also indicate nerve compression in the area.
Note that pinched nerve-related problems typically worsen while sleeping. Also remember, the longer you wait to address a potential problem with a pinched nerve, the more difficult it becomes to ensure no long-term damage.
When you initially begin to notice symptoms consistent with a pinched nerve, there are a number of ways you can address it right at home.
Pain Relief at Home for a Pinched Back Nerve
While the Atlanta Spine Clinic always recommends consulting with your doctor about any plan for self-care you might be considering, there are a number of things you can do on your own early on.
Move Your Body
As with anything related to maintaining your good health, exercise is often key to recovering from a pinched nerve. Depending on the cause of compression, certain exercises may be better than others. But generally, a prescribed routine of moderate exercises like walking and light strength training can help. Exercise is known to reduce inflammation, improve circulation, and decompress those joints and passages surrounding your nerves.
Make Time for the Yoga Mat
There are a number of specific stretches that provide known benefits for various pinched nerves along the spine. This one is very important to discuss with your doctor since improper stretching can actually worsen symptoms. The most commonly employed techniques include deep stretches of the hamstrings and glutes.
Modify Your Sleep Positions
Another issue that often exacerbates a pinched nerve situation is the way that you sleep. Your position may aggravate nerve pain symptoms. Talk with your doctor about proper sleeping positions, and what kind of aids might assist with reducing your discomfort. It may be as simple as positioning a pillow between or under your legs.
Certain activities and some seated positions can actually increase nerve pain. When you talk to your doctor about in-home treatment options, he or she may recommend a few days rest to reduce your symptoms. Often the application of ice and heat packs in 20-minute intervals can help alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, and eliminate muscle spasms.
Seeing Your Doctor About a Pinched Nerve in Your Back
Should at-home treatment methods prove ineffective in relieving your pain, consider heading in to see your doctor about the situation. When symptoms seem to persist to a point that they interfere with your day-to-day routine, or it’s been more than a few days dealing with the same issues, set an appointment.
There are a number of treatment options your doctor may be able to offer after diagnosing a pinched nerve in your back. Generally, a pinched nerve treatment plan consists of a combination of base-level treatments. When those don’t provide ample relief, more aggressive options may be presented.
Noninvasive, Low-Level Treatment Options Are Available
Often, noninvasive, low-level treatment options are enough to relieve pinched nerve symptoms. Anti-inflammatory medications that don’t involve steroids can usually help reduce swelling of muscle tissue and tendons that may be compressing your nerves.
Steroid Injections Are Minimally Invasive
When symptoms persist, your doctor may suggest epidural treatments in which steroids are injected into an affected area to reduce swelling for extended periods of time. These injections can often happen right there in your doctor’s office without extended recovery time.
Surgical Procedures to Alleviate Pinched Back Nerves
As a last resort, your spine doctor may recommend a minimally invasive surgical procedure to help correct a pinched nerve in your back. The exact procedure will depend on the root cause of the pinch. For instance, a microdiscectomy calls for a small incision in the back to correct a herniated disc.
Ultimately, in many cases, having a pinched nerve is a temporary condition. Once the cause is removed, pressure dissipates, and usually the previously affected nerve returns to normal functioning.
When your condition goes unaddressed, however, both chronic pain and permanent nerve damage are likely to occur. So if you feel you may be experiencing symptoms of a pinched nerve in your back, it is always best to err on the side of caution and have the issue checked out.