Many people have neck pain, which may radiate into the shoulder and arm. This type of pain can often be a result of an injury at the root of a spinal nerve. A nerve root injury is often referred to as a “pinched” nerve or in medical terms cervical radiculopathy.
Cause of a cervical radiculopathy
As discs age, they lose height and start to bulge. In addition, they lose water content and become stiffer. As the discs lose height, the vertebrae move closer together. The body sees the collapsed disc as a possible weak area and responds by forming more bone, called spurs, around the disc to strengthen it. The bone spurs that form also play a role in stiffening the spine. Bone spurs can also narrow the canal (foramen) where the nerve exits and pinch the nerve root. The disc changes that occur as we grow older are called arthritis or spondylosis.
Symptoms of a cervical radiculopathy
Sharp pain can refer down the arm in the area of the involved nerve.
There can also be a “pins and needles” sensation or even complete numbness.
A sense of weakness with certain activities can also occur.
Symptoms can be worsened with certain movements, like extending or straining the neck or turning the head and will often be relieved by placing the hand on the head and stretching the shoulder.
Treatment for a cervical radiculopathy
Almost all patients with cervical radiculopathy improve over time and don’t need surgery. Some patients will have the pain subside quickly over days to weeks, while other people take more time.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) may be helpful if the arm symptoms are from nerve swelling.
Sometimes a cortisone injection can be used where the nerve is being pinched. While this will not take the pressure off the nerve, it may decrease the swelling and reduce the pain enough to allow the nerve to recover with manual therapy.
It can be common for cervical radiculopathy to return at some point, later on, however, this problem has a good prognosis if it is managed correctly.