A pinched nerve in the neck is not what it sounds like in most cases. Far more often than not, what people refer to as a “pinched nerve” in the upper back (or “cervical” region of the spine) is actually a strained muscle. The muscles in the neck region might become strained when you sleep with your head in an awkward position, or if your head turns quickly at an unusual angle. While extremely painful in some cases, the pain will usually subside after a few days, and can typically be managed using over-the-counter pain medication. However, there is another condition that actually does deserve the title, “pinched nerve,” and that can produce symptoms which are much more difficult to manage.
Cervical Nerve Compression and its Causes
An actual pinched nerve in the neck is more properly referred to as cervical nerve compression. There are eight sets of nerve roots housed in the cervical (neck) region of the spine. These nerves branch off the spinal cord and carry sensory and motor messages between the brain and the upper body, including the arms and hands. If one of these nerve roots becomes compressed, or pinched, it can interfere with the sensory and motor messages being sent from the brain. It also can cause neck pain, numbness, tingling, and muscle weakness in the neck, upper back, arms, hands, and fingers.
What causes these symptoms? Simply, an anatomical abnormality within the neck reduces the space available for the nerve roots to pass. These abnormalities often are related to the aging process and can include:
- Herniated discs
- Bulging discs
- Bone spurs
- Ligamental hypertrophy
- Spondylolisthesis (vertebral slippage)
These conditions do not always produce symptoms. When they do, the symptoms are usually manageable with a regimen of conservative, nonsurgical treatment methods such as exercise, stretching, pain medication, corticosteroid injections, and more.
When a Pinched Nerve in the Neck Requires Surgery
Surgery for cervical nerve compression caused by a degenerative spine condition is almost always the last resort treatment option. Typically, it only becomes a consideration if symptoms persist after several weeks or months of failed conservative treatment. It is important to note that it might require a period of trial and error to discover the combination of nonsurgical treatment methods that works for you, because no two cases are alike. Open communication between you and your doctor is vital, especially when it comes to changes (for better or worse) in the symptoms.