The primary method of diagnosing a pinched nerve is an in-depth physical exam. Your doctor will also check for numbness in your arm or hand.
If your history and symptoms suggest a pinched nerve, tests such as these can confirm the diagnosis:
- Electromyography and nerve conduction studies: These tests measure the electrical signals in your muscles and can indicate whether you have nerve damage.
- Ultrasound testing: Ultrasounds use sound waves to provide a detailed picture of soft tissues and bones. This type of testing is useful for diagnosing a variety of conditions, including pinched nerves.
- MRI and CT scans: These imaging scans can reveal other issues that may be causingsymptoms of a pinched nerve, such as bone spurs or injuries.
Treatment options depend on the severity of your symptoms and how long you have had them. Most cases of pinched nerve in the neck do not require any treatment. The condition will gradually get better with time, but symptoms may come and go in the future.
When symptoms do not improve, nonsurgical treatments may include a soft neck collar and physical therapy to strengthen the neck, shoulder, and arm muscles.
Medications, such as pain relievers (both over the counter and prescription), can help relieve discomfort from a pinched nerve. Steroid injections or oral corticosteroids can reduce swelling and inflammation, which reduces pain as a result.
Surgery may be an option if these treatments fail to provide relief. The goal of surgery is to remove the damaged disc and relieve pressure on the nerve. Your surgeon will recommend the optimal surgical procedure for you, depending on the cause and location of your pinched nerve.
Pinched nerves are quite common, and in most instances, symptoms will dissipate within a few days. Recovery depends on the location of the nerve, the cause of the restriction, and its severity.
It can take some time to relieve symptoms. With conservative treatments such as rest, anti-inflammatory medications, and applications of alternating heat and ice, most people experience relief within one to three months. Surgery is typically considered only after this time has passed with no improvement.
When to see a doctor for a pinched nerve in your neck
While many cases of pinched nerve will resolve on their own with or without treatment, you should see your doctor if symptoms last for several days. You should also see a doctor if your pain doesn't respond to self-care measures, such as rest and over-the-counter pain relievers.
In some rare cases, a pinched nerve can get worse and lead to prolonged weakness, tingling, or numbness in the arm, shoulder, or hand. In these cases, nerve restriction can lead to damage, which requires treatment to avoid permanent changes.
When nonsurgical treatments fail to manage symptoms adequately and nerve compression has been confirmed, surgery may need to be considered. When in doubt, consult with your doctor to see whether treatment is required.
If you notice any of the following symptoms, you should immediately contact your doctor:
- Weakness in one side of the body, such as inability to grip objects or lift one arm
- Arm or leg weakness, numbness, or tingling that is severe and interferes with fine motor control
- Saddle numbness (numbness in the abdomen or pelvic area)
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Drooping features or slurred speech
- Confusion or difficulty finding words
- Dizziness or difficulty with balance or walking
- Pain that is severe or gets worse over time
These symptoms may indicate a more severe condition.
Dignity Health treats a wide range of orthopedic conditions, including pinched nerve or cervical radiculopathy.
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.