Nothing will stop you in your tracks faster than the sudden excruciating pain of a pinched nerve. Though pain is common, pinched nerves cause a range of symptoms, including red flags warning you of rare but serious complications.
Recognizing the symptoms gives you the chance to seek medical care at an early stage. In addition to getting faster relief from your pain, early treatment from our spine expert, Richard B. Kim, MD, also helps prevent the problem from progressing to cause permanent nerve damage.
Pinched spinal nerve causes
Your spinal cord is surrounded by bone as it runs through an opening in each vertebra. Nerves enter and exit the spinal cord through small openings in the vertebrae. Though vertebral bones protect the delicate nerves, there's no room to spare in those bony openings.
When any spinal condition protrudes into or changes the shape of an opening, the nerves become compressed. An injury can result in pinched spinal nerves. The problem also frequently occurs when you have conditions such as:
- Herniated discs
- Facet joint arthritis
- Bone spurs
- Spinal stenosis
- Slipped vertebrae
- Spinal tumors
- Spinal infections
- Thickened ligaments
- Degenerative disc disease
These conditions typically develop gradually and may not cause symptoms until they finally pinch a nerve.
Pinched nerve symptoms
Pinched nerves have a unique quality: The symptoms can travel along the nerve. When you have pinched spinal nerves, the symptoms may radiate to your shoulders, arms, and hands, or buttocks, legs, and feet, depending on whether the damaged nerve is in your neck or lower back.
You could have one or all of the following symptoms:
Though the severity and quality of pain varies from one person to the next, there's no doubt that pinched nerves cause pain. You feel the pain in your lower back or neck, where the damaged nerve is located. And the pain may go down your arms and legs.
Patients describe the pain as sharp, excruciating, and feeling like an electric shock. In many cases, the pain gets worse during certain physical activities or when you bend or rotate your spine in a specific direction. Sneezing and coughing may suddenly trigger your pain.
The pain also tends to feel better in certain positions. For example, lower back pain may improve when you lie down or bend forward.
Sensory symptoms (paresthesias)
Pinched nerves often cause sensations such as tingling (a pins and needles sensation), burning, and prickling. It may feel like your skin is crawling or itching. You could have sensory symptoms in your back or neck, but they're more noticeable when they travel down an arm or leg.
Despite their reputation for causing debilitating pain, pinched nerves can have the opposite effect: The affected area can turn numb. Numbness occurs as electrical signals stop going through the pinched nerve.
Pinched nerves may cause muscle weakness and muscle spasms. You can also develop changes in the reflexes in your arms and legs. However, reflex abnormalities may only appear during a physical exam.
In severe cases, muscle weakness affects your feet or hands. You may have trouble lifting the front of your foot when you walk, a condition called foot drop. Or you may develop a weak grip in your hands and have difficulty lifting, grasping, or holding items.
These symptoms occur when the cauda equina nerves at the base of your spine are pinched. Though this condition, cauda equina syndrome, is rare, it requires immediate medical care to prevent permanent paralysis and incontinence.
You may experience these two red-flag symptoms:
This symptom refers to numbness or reduced sensation in the areas of your body that would come into contact with a saddle: the buttocks, anus, perineum, groin, and upper thighs.
Bowel or bladder problems
Due to the nerve damage, you may not be able to urinate or you could develop urinary and fecal incontinence.
If you need relief from the pain or other symptoms, Richard B. Kim, MD, offers comprehensive treatment. Call one of our offices in Newport Beach and Orange, California, or book an appointment online.