Radiculopathy, also known as a pinched nerve root, causes numbness, tingling, or pain in the affected area. Increased pressure on the nerve leads to irritation and, in some cases, long-term dysfunction. While pinched nerves in the back or neck are common, almost any nerve can experience radiculopathy.

What Is Radiculopathy?

The spinal column consists of stacked bones called vertebrae that protect the spinal cord. Nerve roots branch from the spinal cord, traveling between vertebrae as they enter various areas of the body. Radiculopathy occurs when those nerve roots become compressed due to swelling, misalignments, or narrowed space.

Older man holding the back of his neck with both hands.

Cervical Radiculopathy

Cervical radiculopathy is a compressed nerve root in the cervical spine or neck. The nerves in the cervical spine control sensations in the hands and arms, so patients feel symptoms in their upper limbs. 

Common symptoms include loss of motor skills, tingling in the fingers or hand, weakness in the arm, shoulder, or hand, and pain associated with neck movement or straining.

Lumbar Radiculopathy

Lumbar radiculopathy is often referred to as sciatica, as it typically involves the nerve roots of the lower back's sciatic nerve. 

Typical symptoms include lower back pain, muscle spasms, and numbness, tingling, or muscle weakness that travels into the buttocks, hips, groin, or legs.

Doctor using a pen to point out a potential issue in a patient's spinal scan.
Middle Aged man reaching behind his back.

Thoracic Radiculopathy

Thoracic radiculopathy causes pain and numbness that wraps around the front of the body. Symptoms of thoracic radiculopathy include trouble bending or moving the torso, along with an inability to sit for extended periods, loss of sensation, muscle spasms, and weakness.

Radiculopathy Causes

Radiculopathy typically results from the tissues surrounding the nerve roots applying abnormal pressure due to the following causes:

Bulging spinal discs
Bone spurs that grow and pinch nerves
Disc degeneration
Spinal trauma
Herniated disc

These factors can shift or change the size of tissues of the spine, narrowing the space around the nerve roots.

Doctor consulting a patient while holding a 3D model of a spine.
physical therapist stretching a young mans spinal column

How Can Radiculopathy Be Treated?

Identifying the location and cause of radiculopathy are critical to treatment. The following non-surgical treatments are almost always preferred and recommended first:

Physical therapy
Activity modification
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Steroid injections in the spine
Neuropathic pain medications (i.e. Neurontin, Lyrica)

After exhausting all other options, some patients may be candidates for surgery to alleviate pressure on the pinched nerve root.

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