man experiencing neck pain

Neck Pain: Is It a Pinched Nerve?

Neck Pain: Is It a Pinched Nerve?

When such a variety of issues cause neck pain and nerve damage, it’s important to be sure what you’ve been assuming is a pinched nerve really is a pinched nerve. While rest can be just the thing to get a pinched nerve back to normal, some conditions need more medical attention than that. Here are a few indications that can help you figure out what’s going on in your neck, and if it really is just a pinched nerve.

What is a Pinched Nerve?

A pinched nerve occurs when something happens to put pressure on the nerve, nerve root, or the myelin sheath (the protective nerve covering). When a nerve is pinched, the signals sent between nerve and brain are disrupted. Generally, appropriate treatment will return the nerve to normal over time; however, when a pinched nerve isn’t dealt with, it can cause permanent damage. A pinched nerve can occur all down the spine and in other parts of the body, like what occurs with carpal tunnel syndrome which originates in the wrist. But when nerve roots exiting the upper spine in the cervical area are compressed or inflamed, the pain is centered largely in the neck and is referred to as cervical radiculopathy. 

Causes of Cervical Radiculopathy

Both internal and external issues can lead to cervical radiculopathy, which can be occasional or chronic. Bone spurs (or “cervical osteophytes”) are growths on the bone that can push on or inflame the nerve, leading to the “pinched” sensation. Bone spurs often begin to grow as age interferes with the integrity of the spinal cord, which can begin to degenerate. Herniated discs can also be problematic; pressure on the nerve results when the cushions separating the discs of the spinal cord start essentially leaking out. Severe neck injuries can also lead to pressure or inflammation of the nerves. 

Symptoms of Cervical Radiculopathy

Cervical radiculopathy causes pain that may vary from mild discomfort to more intense aching to sharp jolting pain. The pain will likely radiate out from the pinched spot and may even travel into the shoulders and arms or down the back as muscles are pulled back and forth in an attempt to make up for misalignment. While a pinched nerve resulting in carpal tunnel syndrome (in the hands) or sciatica (the lower back, rear, and legs) can make the affected limb feel tingly or numb, a pinched nerve in the neck may simply reduce sensation in the area—although not enough to diminish the pain. Headaches at the bottom of the head and top of the neck may also occur. Mobility may be hindered because of muscle weakness or pain caused by certain movements. 

When it Isn’t Cervical Radiculopathy

Other disorders can cause the pain, tingling, and numbness associated with a pinched neck nerve. For example, neuropathy can cause these sensations in the arms as it affects the peripheral nerves. These sensations may mimic a pinched nerve, but can be much more serious. If you have an underlying disorder that increases the chances of nerve damage or nerve conditions, it’s important to seek medical care to ensure you’re managing nerve pain correctly. Conversely, other issues may be causing your neck pain. Things like spinal stenosis or degenerative disc disease may require similar treatments, but can be more severe and longer term.

Last Updated: March 23, 2017