Commonly known as a pinched nerve, Radiculopathy is the term used to describe an injury or some damage to the nerve roots in the spine. Generally brought about by a compressed spinal nerve, Radiculopathy can present in three areas of your spinal cord; causing pain, numbness, and further nerve damage.
Here, we answer your most burning questions about Radiculopathy, what causes it, and how it can be treated...
What Are the Symptoms of Radiculopathy?
Radiculopathy causes sharp, burning pains that not are not only localized in the back where the pinched nerve is located; but these pains can also shoot to other areas of the body that are connected to the damaged nerves, such as the arms, legs, and fingers.
This pain is caused by an inflammatory response, which is triggered when compressed or pinched nerves in the spine lose their blood supply due to being constricted.
Depending on where in your back the pinched nerve is located, Radiculopathy symptoms can vary as follows:
- Neck (Cervical) Radiculopathy:
- Neck and shoulder pain, muscle weakness, and numbness that radiates down the arm and into the hand are symptoms of Cervical Radiculopathy. Sufferers might also experience loss of sensation and tingling in the fingers, combined with decreased motor function. This is the result of a nerve in the neck being pinched or irritated at the root where it leaves the spinal cord.
- Upper Back (Thoracic) Radiculopathy:
- Pain, numbness and tingling that wraps around to the front of the chest are symptoms of Thoracic Radiculopathy. This is caused by a compressed nerve in the upper area of the spine.
- Lower Back (Lumbar) Radiculopathy:
- Burning sensations, numbness, pain and muscle weakness in the lower back, buttocks and legs are the symptoms of Lumbar Radiculopathy. Also known as Sciatica, this occurs in the lower region of the spine and is the most common area for people to experience Radiculopathy.
What Are the Causes of Radiculopathy?
Many causes of Radiculopathy are the result of the natural aging process or an injury.
- Bone Spurs:
- As we age, the soft, cushioning discs that act as shock absorbers between our vertebrae can bulge, dry out and stiffen up. Our bodies respond to this degeneration in our spinal discs and go to work creating an alternative method of strengthening them: by creating bone spurs.
- Bone spurs can form anywhere on our spine. When they occur inside the channel hole where our spinal nerves exit, the dedicated space that our nerve roots would normally be occupying are shrunken, causing the nerve root to be compressed and become irritated.
- A widely-spanning term referring to pain in the joints, Arthritis can affect the spine significantly as there are several joints present that make up the spaces between each vertebrae. Arthritis of the spine is called Spondylosis, and leads to Radiculopathy when the discs can bulge and apply pressure against the nerves.
If a spinal disc becomes herniated, the cushioning disc material can squeeze out through the tear and leak out into the spinal canal. This disc material not only physically places pressure on the surrounding nerves when it occupies this space in the spinal canal where it is not intended to be; it is also highly acidic. When our body responds to this rupture by releasing chemicals to the site, these chemicals combine with the acidic disc material and cause pain, irritation and inflammation to the nerve roots. This leads to nerve damage and lumbar spine Radiculopathy.
How is Radiculopathy Diagnosed?
A physical examination by your doctor will identify the source of your symptoms and diagnose Radiculopathy. During your examination, your physician will perform some assessments to determine the cause of your symptoms, and highlight which nerves are involved:
- Diagnostic Tests:
- MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or a CT Spine Scan to discover bone spurs or herniated discs.
- X-Rays to reveal alignment of the bones in your spine and neck.
- EMG (Electromyography) to evaluate the health of muscles and the nerves that control them.
- Neurological Examinations:
- Assessing muscle strength changes
- Examine sensory responses to stimulation such as temperature and pressure
- Muscle reflex tests
- Various tests to attempt to reproduce the pain, identifying which precise nerve root is pinched or compressed.
What are the Treatment Options?
Recommended treatment options for Radiculopathy can vary depending on the severity of your symptoms, the intensity of your pain, and the degree of atypical findings discovered during your exam.
In some cases, the pain and discomfort associated with Radiculopathy can improve over time with rest and not require any treatment. However, if leaving the cause of your symptoms untreated will pose potential nerve damage risk or lead to ongoing pain, your doctor may suggest one of the following treatment plans:
- Spinal physical therapists can rehabilitate damaged spinal nerves through massage, electrical stimulation and ultrasound procedures. These sessions can increase mobility and strength, and reduce pain and inflammation.
Anti Inflammatory Drugs
- Oral steroids help reduce swelling and pressure on spinal nerves. If pain persists, a steroid injection targeted at the site may prove to be more effective and provide more significant relief.
- If your symptoms are not responding to non-invasive treatment options, or if your doctor suspects there is dangerous neurological damage, surgery may be required. Surgically removing damaged discs to liberate some space for compressed nerves, or to fuse some portions of the spine can address underlying issues that cause pinched nerves.
As always, maintaining our wellbeing is in our hands. Being proactive when it comes to the health and comfort of our spine is paramount in living a happy, functional life... So be sure to talk to your doctor if you're experiencing any symptoms of Radiculopathy caused by pinched nerves.
We all deserve many years of effortless mobility and pain-free living ahead with a healthy, aligned spine; so ensure you take action and address any issues causing you back pain and discomfort without delay.