You’re an active adult who tries to exercise regularly and maintain a healthy lifestyle. But lately, you’ve been experiencing significant shoulder, arm and/or neck pain. It may occur as more of a tingling sensation accompanied by muscle weakness in the upper extremities, or it may feel almost like a bolt of lightning that radiates from your collar and down your arm, all the way to your fingertips. Your primary care doctor has confirmed your cardiovascular fitness – it’s not a heart attack. But it keeps happening, particularly when you make certain movements like turning your head, looking up at something or bending down to tie your shoes. What could be the problem?
Commonly called a “pinched nerve,” cervical radiculopathy occurs when a nerve in the uppermost portion of your spine is compressed or irritated at the point where it branches off of the spinal cord (the nerve root). This can happen as a result of the normal aging process as the disks that provide cushioning between the vertebral bones lose some of their moisture content and push outward while flattening. The result may be irritation and degeneration of the surrounding structures (spondylosis), bone spurs and possibly a herniated disk. Younger patients may also experience cervical radiculopathy following a sports-related injury or heavy lifting that causes a disk herniation.
The pressure exerted on the nerve root from any these conditions produces pain with or without weakness/numbness throughout the part of the body that the nerve supplies – starting at the neck and continuing across the shoulder and upper chest and down into one or both arms, wrists, and hands.
When a patient is experiencing neck, arm and shoulder pain, a thorough medical history and physical exam, including close evaluation of deficiencies in muscle strength, sensitivity, and reflexes within the affected areas, can help diagnose cervical radiculopathy. One or more imaging studies may be ordered (X-ray, CT scan, MRI, and electromyography) along with nerve conduction studies to confirm whether a compressed spinal nerve root is to blame for the patient’s symptoms as opposed to nerve damage caused by another medical condition. An injection may also be employed to more precisely locate and identify the source of pain in some patients.
Treatment for cervical radiculopathy can vary depending upon the severity of the patient’s symptoms and why and how the nerve root is being compressed but is usually accomplished via nonsurgical methods. These include oral medications to reduce pain and inflammation, combined with targeted physical therapy and injections. In cases of severe pain, failure of conservative treatment, or the presence of significant weakness, surgical intervention may be considered. A standard surgical option in such cases is a minimally invasive cervical discectomy and fusion procedure, which relieves pressure on a nerve root that is caused by a damaged disk.
Dr. Patel at the Spine Health Institute is at the forefront of minimally invasive techniques for resolving neck and back pain. He’s helped many patients to obtain the relief they seek for cervical radiculopathy and other spinal conditions through conservative to advanced therapies – view some of his patients’ testimonials here.
Of course, pinched nerves can’t always be avoided. But like many other spine problems, regular exercise plays a key role in maintaining the strength and flexibility of your neck and core muscles, which in turn reduces unnecessary stresses on the spine that can lead to cervical radiculopathy. Exercise also contributes to effective weight management – another must for maintaining your spine health. Learn how to keep your spine safe while exercising by reading our recent blogs on jogging, biking, and tennis.
Additionally, if you spend long hours at a desk each day, it’s worth making sure your work station incorporates ergonomic design with regard to your chair and the positioning of your computer screen, mouse and phone so that you can practice the right sitting posture to avoid continual stresses on your back and neck. Here’s some helpful information on avoiding back pain at work.
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While aging has an inevitable effect on spine strength and stability, taking the right precautions and living a healthy lifestyle can help slow the aging process and reduce the likelihood of developing a condition that causes cervical radiculopathy as you grow older. The multidisciplinary medical team at the Spine Health Institute can provide you with information on specially targeted exercises for maintaining a healthy neck and back, and is always happy to answer your questions about specific spinal conditions.