What is a Pinched Nerve and what causes it ?
A Pinched Nerve is a term used in common parlance to describe a compressed, constricted or an impinged nerve. To understand a pinched nerve better, let’s first recap all that we know about what a nerve really is and how it controls our bodily functions.
Nerves are the signal bearers of our bodies; they transmit chemical signals or neural information from our brain to different parts of our bodies and back via the spinal cord. Together the brain and the spinal cord form the central nervous system of our body. The nerves can be broadly classified as motor nerves which carry signals to our muscles to move, contract and so on; sensory nerves that command the sensation of touch, taste and smell; autonomic nerves which control the involuntary processes of our body such as pumping of blood and digestion.
In layman terms it means that every action we perform is commanded by the signals carried by the nerves. As a natural corollary, any disruption to the signals will lead to information jumbling and adversely affect the action the nerve is supposed to control.
A nerve impingement or a pinched nerve denotes that for some reason a particular nerve or bundle of nerves has been constricted or compressed, interrupting and even disrupting the normal flow of signals to and fro that nerve or nerve bundle. A compressed nerve or a pinched nerve may happen anywhere in the body but the likeliest locations are the neck or the lower back where the maximum flexing happens and the potential for wear and tear is more.
The most common cause of a pinched nerve is a herniated disc. An incorrect posture, a sports injury or a jerky movement may result in a herniated disc. A herniated or slip disc builds up pressure on the nerves passing through causing a compression. Other probable causes of a pinched nerve include arthritis, bone spurs, spinal stenosis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
How to recognize if you are suffering from a pinched nerve?
Since more than one kind of nerve may have been affected on account of the trauma to the region, the impact of a pinched nerve may vary. But the most common sensations associated with an impinged nerve are that of pain accompanied by alternating numbness and tingling in the affected region as the signals repeatedly try to pass but fail in their attempt.
The way to recognize that you are suffering from a pinched pain is that the pain is not localized but spreads to connected limbs and is aggravated by long duration of standing, sitting or high levels of activity. If the pain is in the lower back, bending forward or backwards may increase the pain.
A pinched nerve in the neck may cause pain and numbness in the neck, head, shoulder and upper arms whereas a pinched nerve in the lower back may result in pain and tingling in the lower back, hips, thighs and even the legs extending right up to the toes. The stiffness and tingling in the associated limbs may be continual and again may be aggravated by any posture or movement which puts pressure on the affected region.
Of course, the safest bet to find out whether you are indeed suffering from a pinched nerve is to consult an Orthopaedic specialist.
How to manage pain resulting from a pinched nerve?
The pain associated with a pinched nerve is often debilitating and unfortunately takes long to wear off. For those who suffer from a pinched nerve handling daily chores can also be a challenge as the slightest pressure on the affected region may trigger the pain and numbness again.
The good news however is that the pain eventually wears off and the body heals itself at least in most cases. A nerve impinged due to a herniated disc may alleviate itself in 6 to 8 weeks with rest and medication. A nerve which has been compressed due to other factors may take longer and may need prolonged medication and pain management.
At home, the best way to manage the pain is to avoid further trauma on the affected region and explore the most comfortable or the least painful posture in which to stand, sit or lie down. Hot and cold compresses can provide relief to the affected region. Some afflicted by a pinched nerve swear by ice-packs while others find a hot shower or a warm bath amazingly alleviating.
On the medical front, the specialist may base his assessment of your problem on X-ray and MRI scan results to substantiate symptoms shared by you. He may prescribe powerful pain killers to relieve the nerve pain and to fight the inflammation. Be prepared for sleepy days as the drugs are often high on sedative which may actually be good as nothing can cure your condition better than plenty of rest. The doctor may also prescribe medicines that revitalize and regenerate the nerves.
You may also be asked to consult a physiotherapist who can recommend exercises which can both relieve the pain as well as strengthen the muscles in the affected region. He may also advise you on the correct sitting and lying down posture. If sitting is painful, you may be advised to use a cushioned surface, to take care to support your lumbar region completely and take regular breaks.
If sleeping on the back is a problem, you may be asked to sleep with a pillow under your knees to provide support. Physiotherapy sessions may also involve the use of traction as well as electric stimulation of the affected area by providing low frequency electric waves.
Besides the conventional allopathic treatment, some people prefer treating pinched nerve and other back pain problems through natural and holistic treatment methods such as chiropractic, acupuncture and massage. Chiropractic is very popular and involves gentle de-compression of the nerve and re-alignment of the spinal cord.
Once the condition has been alleviated practicing yoga, gentle stretching exercises and massage on a regular basis may help strengthen the affected muscles. Using the correct sitting posture and avoiding jerky movements while exercising, lifting or any other physical activity may prevent the occurrence of a pinched nerve in the future.