What is a Pinched Nerve?

When there’s too much pressure on the area around a nerve root in the back or neck, the nerve becomes pinched or compressed. This usually happens when bones, muscles, cartilage, ligaments, or tendons press too hard against the nerve. The pressure irritates the nerve and can interfere with the way it should work.

A pinched nerve in the back or neck can be minor or severe. Most pinched nerves get better within a few weeks.

Pinched nerves can cause long-lasting problems. Early diagnosis and treatment are important to prevent permanent damage.
Common causes of a pinched nerve in the back or neck are:

Other causes are:

  • Injury.
  • Poor posture.
  • Stress from repetitive activities.

What Are the Most Common Symptoms of a Pinched Nerve?

Symptoms of a pinched nerve include:

  • Pain, which could be sharp, aching or burning, in the area around the pinched nerve.
  • Pain that spreads to the:
    • Leg, butt, and/or foot for a pinched nerve in the back.
    • Arm and hand for a pinched nerve in the neck.
  • Numbness or tingling.
  • “Pins and needles” or a burning feeling.
  • Muscle weakness in the area around the pinched nerve.
  • Feeling like a foot or hand has “fallen asleep.”
  • Symptoms may be worse when you’re sleeping or with certain movements, like bending your neck or turning your head.

See a doctor if:
Your symptoms last for several days and don’t get better with rest and pain medicines.

What Are the Treatments for a Pinched Nerve?

Most pinched nerves in the back or neck get better within a few weeks with rest and conservative treatment. Rest and stopping activities that caused the pinching or make it worse is the most common treatment.

Treatment varies, depending on the cause of the pinched nerve and how bad it is. Treatments include:

  • Pain medicines: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen:
    • NSAIDs like ibuprofen (e.g., Advil and Motrin) help relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
    • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) relieves pain.
  • Opioid pain medicines like codeine or morphine.
  • Steroids, taken in pills or injected into the spine to relieve pain and inflammation.
  • Physical therapy to:
    • Strengthen the muscles and stretch the muscles near the pinched nerve and relieve pressure.
    • Modify activities that irritate the nerve.

If other treatments don’t work after a few months, you may need surgery to take pressure off the pinched nerve. The type of surgery depends on where the pinched nerve is.
Common types of surgery for a pinched nerve include:

  • Surgery to remove the part of the disc causing the pain, if the pinched nerve is from a herniated disc. (This is called discectomy).
  • Surgery to remove the part of the disc or the bone spur causing the pain and “weld” or fuse the bones together, if the pinched nerve is from a herniated disc or pieces of bone that grow along the edges of bones (bone spurs). The bones then heal into a solid bone. The surgeon also uses:
    • A bone graft (a piece of bone from another part of the body or a bone bank) to help new bone growth.
    • Plates, screws, and/or rods to help hold the spine still while it heals. (This is called discectomy and fusion).
  • Surgery to remove the disc and replace it with an artificial disc, if the pinched nerve is from a herniated disc.