The term "pinched nerve" is a colloquial term and not a true medical term. It is used to describe one type of damage or injury to a nerve or set of nerves. The injury may result from compression, constriction, or stretching.
One of the most common examples of a single compressed nerve is the feeling of having a foot or hand "fall asleep." A "pinched nerve" frequently is associated with pain in the neck or lower back. This type of pain can be caused by inflammation or pressure on the nerve root as it exits the spine. If the pain is severe or lasts a long time, you may need to have further evaluation from your physician.
Several problems can lead to similar symptoms of numbness, pain, and tingling in the hands or feet but without pain in the neck or back. These can include peripheral neuropathy, carpal tunnel syndrome, and tennis elbow. The extent of such injuries may vary from minor, temporary damage to a more permanent condition. Early diagnosis is important to prevent further damage or complications.
Pinched nerve signs and symptoms include:
Numbness or decreased sensation in the area supplied by the nerve
Sharp, aching or burning pain, which may radiate outward
Tingling, pins and needles sensations (paresthesia)
Muscle weakness in the affected area
Frequent feeling that a foot or hand has "fallen asleep"
In the case of carpal tunnel syndrome, a variety of tissues may be responsible for compression of the carpal tunnel's median nerve, including swollen tendon sheaths within the tunnel, enlarged bone that narrows the tunnel, or a thickened and degenerated ligament.
A number of conditions may cause tissue to compress a nerve or nerves, including:
Rheumatoid or wrist arthritis
Stress from repetitive work
Hobbies or sports activities
If a nerve is pinched for only a short time, there's usually no permanent damage. Once the pressure is relieved, nerve function returns to normal. However, if the pressure continues, chronic pain and permanent nerve damage can occur.
The following factors may increase your risk of experiencing a pinched nerve:
Bone spurs. Trauma or a condition that causes bone thickening, such as osteoarthritis, can cause bone spurs. Bone spurs can stiffen the spine as well as narrow the space where your nerves travel, pinching nerves.
Rheumatoid arthritis. Inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis can compress nerves, especially in your joints.
Thyroid disease. People with thyroid disease are at higher risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Other risk factors include:
Diabetes. People with diabetes are at higher risk of nerve compression.
Overuse. Jobs or hobbies that require repetitive hand, wrist or shoulder movements, such as assembly line work, increase your likelihood of a pinched nerve.
Obesity. Excess weight can add pressure to nerves.
Pregnancy. Water and weight gain associated with pregnancy can swell nerve pathways, compressing your nerves.
Prolonged bed rest. Long periods of lying down can increase the risk of nerve compression.
The following measures may help you prevent a pinched nerve:
Maintain good positioning — don't cross your legs or lie in any one position for a long time.
Incorporate strength and flexibility exercises into your regular exercise program.
Limit repetitive activities and take frequent breaks when engaging in these activities.
Maintain a healthy weight.
The most frequently recommended treatment for pinched nerve is rest for the affected area. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or corticosteroids may be recommended to help alleviate pain. Physical therapy is often useful, and splints or collars may be used to relieve symptoms. Depending on the cause and severity of the pinched nerve, surgery may be needed.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if the signs and symptoms of a pinched nerve last for several days and don't respond to self-care measures, such as rest and over-the-counter pain relievers.
Content by: (NINDS) National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/