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Pinched Nerve Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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If you've ever had pain and weren't quite sure what caused it, you may have had a pinched nerve. Although it is most common in the neck or back, a pinched nerve can also occur in other parts of the body, such as the wrist. Recognizing pinched nerve symptoms and signs is critical for receiving the proper treatment.

What Causes a Pinched Nerve?

According to the American Association of Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine, a pinched nerve occurs when the tissue that surrounds a nerve puts pressure on it. The pressure can change how the nerve functions and cause pain or a tingling sensation. This pain or tingling can be temporary or long-lasting, and can be minor or severe.

A pinched nerve can be caused by a herniated disc, which is when one of the discs between the spinal bones (vertebrae) pushes out. Spinal stenosis, which is the abnormal narrowing of the body channel occupied by the spinal cord, can also cause a pinched nerve.

Pinched Nerve Causes and Symptoms

A pinched nerve can happen to anyone, but certain people have a higher risk than others. Someone whose job involves repetitive motions may be more likely to experience a pinched nerve. Or a pinched nerve may occur after a long period of sitting or sleeping in an uncomfortable position. Pregnant women can also experience pinched nerves due to the extra weight.

If you do have a pinched nerve, symptoms may include:

  • Tingling or a pins and needles sensation
  • A sharp aching or burning pain that may radiate outward
  • Numbness or decreased feeling in the affected area

Common Pinched Nerve Misdiagnoses

If you aren't familiar with the signs and symptoms of a pinched nerve, it can be easy to confuse it with something else, like a pulled muscle. Trying to figure out what you have on your own can also be extremely difficult.

A pinched nerve will generally feel like a sharp shooting pain that radiates to another part of the body. On the other hand, a pulled muscle will usually feel like a dull ache or pain that only occurs in one part of the body. A pulled muscle will also likely occur when the muscle is overextended or when there is strenuous exercise.

Pinched Nerve Diagnosis

If you think you have pinched nerve symptoms, it's best to visit your primary care physician first. It may be helpful to write down the symptoms you've been having before your appointment. Because a pinched nerve can look like other conditions, try to be as specific as possible when describing the pain or other sensations.

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, a doctor may take an X-ray, a computed tomography (CT) scan, or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to find the cause of the pinched nerve. If your primary care doctor is unable to diagnose the pinched nerve, you may need to see a neurologist or orthopedist.

Pinched Nerve Treatment

A pinched nerve isn't always debilitating and can often be treated at home if it doesn't go away on its own. Treatment can be as simple as exercise or stretching to relieve the pressure. You can also apply heat to relax the tight muscles around the pinched nerve. Ice can reduce the swelling and inflammation. If those methods don't work, you can try a painkiller like ibuprofen or aspirin.

A pinched nerve can be uncomfortable or painful, but it can generally be relieved with over-the-counter drugs, home remedies, or simply time. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any pain or discomfort that doesn't go away with time or treatment.

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