A trapped nerve in the neck, also known as cervical radiculopathy, is a medical condition in which the nerve roots exiting the spine in the neck area are compressed. This usually happens when something puts pressure on them, such as a disc herniation or bone spur. It’s important to recognize the symptoms of a trapped nerve in order to seek prompt medical attention and avoid permanent damage.
The following are common signs and symptoms of a trapped nerve in the neck:
- Pain that radiates down into the arm, fingers, or shoulder
- Tingling sensation down the arm
- Numbness or decreased sensation down into the arm
- Weakness in hand grip strength or muscle weakness in arms and shoulders
- Pain when turning your head from side to side
Causes of a Trapped Nerve in the Neck
Trapped nerves in the neck are a debilitating condition caused by either a physical or chemical injury. They can be caused by a variety of factors, such as accidents, falls, poor posture, and even prolonged periods of inactivity.
In order to fully understand the causes of a trapped nerve in the neck and the symptoms associated with it, it is important to understand the anatomy of the neck.
Structural issues can cause a trapped nerve in your neck. Common structural issues associated with a trapped nerve include:
- Degenerative joint diseases, such as arthritis.
- Formed cysts.
- Herniated discs compress the nerve or surrounding soft tissues.
- Inflammation and thickening of tendons or ligaments.
- Impacted or misaligned vertebrae.
In addition, some medical experts believe that excessive tension, sustained postures, and frequent loadings of the neck joints may lead to muscle shortening, called muscular contractures. These contractures increase muscle stiffness which in turn increases friction between the muscles and other structures such as the connecting connective tissues leading to structural issues resulting in a trapped nerve.
Other issues that could lead to a trapped nerve in your neck include:
- Obesity puts extra strain on your spine and related nerves.
- Injury from accidents/falls/sports activities that result in destabilization of the spine.
- Sitting for long hours unaccompanied by stretching/movement breaks can result in poor posture leading to overstretching/overcompression of certain underlying structures.
Injury or trauma
Injury or trauma is one of the most common causes of a trapped nerve in the neck. Trauma to the neck can include whiplash from a car accident, a direct blow to the neck, or a pinched nerve due to awkward positioning. Injuries can occur in employers who repeatedly do certain motions, such as working with their arms extended overhead. Repetitive motion syndromes and poor posture can also lead to Trapped Nerve in Neck.
Other possible causes of a trapped nerve include cervical disc herniation, cervical arthritis, infections such as shingles and tumors, or other conditions that put pressure on nerves or vertebrae in the neck area.
In some cases, the cause of a trapped nerve in the neck is due to repetitive activities. These are often associated with the workplace or leisure activities and can involve prolonged periods of sitting at a computer or bending your head and neck at an awkward angle while texting or reading. A repetitive strain injury is an example of this type of activity. Repetition causes strain in the muscles of your neck and shoulder, as well as excessive tension in the cervical spine, leading to pressure on a nerve root. This pressure can cause symptoms such as tingling and numbness that radiates down your arm.
Other contributing factors include ergonomic issues caused by poor posture, weak shoulder muscles, or tight neck muscles which can all contribute to compression of your nerve roots – leading to a trapped nerve. If you think your symptoms may be caused by repetitive activities it may be helpful to speak with an occupational therapist for advice about how to adjust your office space and work practices for improved posture and reduced strain on your neck muscles.
Signs and Symptoms
Trapped nerves can cause pain, numbness, and tingling in the neck and surrounding areas. It is important to look out for these signs and symptoms, in order to catch the condition early and ensure effective treatment.
This section will cover the common signs and symptoms of a trapped nerve in the neck and what you should look out for:
Pain is one of the primary signs and symptoms of a trapped nerve in the neck. It typically presents as an aching, burning, or shooting sensation that can radiate down your arm and back again. Depending on the specific location of the nerve compression, you may have difficulty performing basic neck movements such as turning your head or tilting it to either side. You may also experience numbness and tingling, especially if the area around the nerve is pinched for a long period of time.
Other symptoms may include:
- Muscle weakness
- Spasms or cramps in your neck, shoulders, and arms.
Tingling or numbness
Tingling or numbness in the neck, shoulder, and/or arm is a common symptom of a trapped nerve in the neck. This can include a feeling of pins and needles, an electric shock-like sensation, or a complete lack of sensation. In some cases, it can be mistaken for pain but often times it will feel like a tingling or buzzing sensation. It may begin slowly in one area before spreading to other areas of your body as the nerve becomes more compressed.
You may also experience other symptoms such as:
- Muscle weakness and spasms
- Slowed reflexes
- Balance difficulties
- Difficulty with normal daily activities such as writing or typing.
It can also affect your ability to concentrate and make decisions. These symptoms should not be ignored; you should seek medical advice immediately if you are experiencing any of these signs or symptoms.
Weakness is often a sign of a trapped nerve in the neck. People may experience numbness, tingling, or pain in the affected area as well as weakness. Weakness is due to irritation of nerves that run through the neck, causing signals from the brain to be disrupted and slowing down or preventing communication from muscles. Weakness can affect multiple areas, such as arms or legs, chest, or abdominal muscles. It may also result in impaired balance and coordination.
Other signs and symptoms associated with a trapped nerve in the neck include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Poor concentration
- Memory loss
Tingling, prickling, or burning sensations caused by a trapped nerve in your neck can also be accompanied by muscle spasms. These spasms can cause temporary stiffness which can be discomforting and limiting. In some cases, they may even cause pain in or around the neck area. Muscle spasms can limit the range of motion and cause difficulty moving the neck to its full capacity.
If your neck muscles are too tight or strained due to nerve compression, it’s important that you seek medical attention right away. This is because if left untreated, these muscle spasms could lead to chronic pain syndromes such as chronic headaches as well as the tendency for increased reoccurrence of nerve entrapment.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of a trapped nerve in the neck, it is important to see a medical professional to get a proper diagnosis. A doctor will typically take your medical history and examine the area of your neck that is causing you pain or discomfort. They may also order further tests such as X-rays or an MRI scan to determine the extent of the nerve damage.
When diagnosing a trapped nerve in the neck, your physician will likely begin with a physical exam. They may observe your range of motion and reflexes, as well as palpate (feel) to assess the pain level of individual muscles in the area. It is important to communicate with your doctor as they perform the exam to ensure they get an accurate picture of where and when you feel pain and discomfort.
Your physician may employ diagnostic imaging such as X-rays or MRIs for a more detailed assessment. These will help rule out other possible causes of your symptoms and provide additional evidence that you have a nerve impingement in that specific area. Your doctor may also order tests such as electromyography (EMG) or nerve conduction velocity (NCV) studies. These tests measure how quickly electrical signals travel from one point to another along nerves and can help identify peripheral neuropathy or other similar conditions which are associated with trapped nerves.
Imaging tests such as an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI can help your doctor diagnose a trapped nerve in your neck.
- X-rays provide images of the bones and soft tissues in your neck. This type of imaging is useful for detecting any fractures, breaks, or arthritis that might be causing pressure on the nerve.
- CT scans are similar to X-rays, but they provide cross-sectional images of more detail.
- MRIs use powerful magnets to create detailed pictures of the soft tissues and confirm if you have a trapped nerve in your neck.
Your doctor may recommend other tests as well depending on your symptoms and diagnosis.
Nerve conduction studies
Nerve conduction studies use small electrical shocks to measure the strength and speed of electrical signals conducted by the nerves. During nerve conduction studies, electrodes are placed over the skin in specific locations that correspond to particular nerve pathways. When the electrodes are stimulated with a mild electrical current, a patient should feel a mild tingling sensation.
The reaction of the nerves is recorded and relays information about their functionality to a neurologist. A physician may use these results to diagnose problems such as trapped nerves in the neck or shoulder, including pinched nerves and herniated discs.
Treatment for a trapped nerve in the neck consists of both non-surgical and surgical options. Non-surgical treatment typically includes the use of pain medications, physical therapy, heat therapy, ice therapy, and massage. Depending on the severity of the condition, surgical intervention may be necessary to relieve the pain and discomfort.
Let’s take a closer look at the different treatment options for a trapped nerve in the neck:
Medication is commonly prescribed by doctors to ease the pain and inflammation caused by a trapped nerve in the neck. Depending on the severity and cause of the trapped nerve, medication may vary from over-the-counter medications to prescription medications.
Over-the-Counter Medications: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve), are often used for short-term relief of neck pain caused by a trapped nerve. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is another option for relieving neck pain. Topical treatments or ointments such as capsaicin can also be beneficial in providing relief from joint stiffness and numbness due to a trapped nerve in the neck.
Prescription Medications: If over-the-counter medications are not providing sufficient relief from neck pain, your doctor may prescribe stronger medication. Commonly prescribed medicines include muscle relaxants, opiate analgesics or narcotics, oral steroids, and/or antidepressants. Tricyclic antidepressants like amitriptyline may help improve nerve compression symptoms such as ongoing pain and muscle spasm associated with a herniated disc or stenosis in your neck region by blocking the sensation of pain receptors along the nerves leading away from your spinal cord. While these medications can offer temporary relief for some people, it could take several weeks before any significant change occurs in reducing symptoms related to trapped nerves in the neck region.
Physical therapy is often used to treat a trapped nerve in the neck. Common exercises and techniques used in physical therapy for neck pain involve stretching, flexibility, strengthening, and relaxation techniques. Additionally, ultrasound treatment or laser therapy may be employed to reduce inflammation, improve circulation and decrease pain. Heat or cold packs may be recommended to reduce swelling in the area of the trapped nerve.
Stretching exercises are important for reducing tightness and allowing muscles to relax, which can relieve pressure on nerves. As part of this treatment plan, your doctor or physical therapist will likely recommend specific stretches for your particular condition, as well as a regular exercise program that keeps your neck mobile and strengthens the muscles that support it.
Strengthening exercises focus on restoring strength in the neck muscles that were weakened by a trapped nerve. Strengthening exercises usually commence after flexibility exercises have been completed in order to build up strength and prevent the recurrence of symptoms. Once sufficient progress has been made with strengthening exercises, activities such as light weightlifting or cardio can be introduced into the regular exercise routine.
Relaxation techniques help calm the mind while relaxing muscle tension in both head and neck areas while decreasing pain associated with a trapped nerve injury. Relaxation strategies include:
- Deep breathing strategies such as diaphragmatic (or belly) breathing;
- Introspective meditation;
- Progressive muscle relaxation;
- Yoga poses such as child’s pose and reclining hands-to-heart posture;
- Tai chi;
- Ice baths/wraps/packs coupled with heat applications etc. are all chosen based on individual preference and comfort level.
Surgery is typically only recommended for those experiencing severe and prolonged symptoms that do not respond to the other treatments. There are numerous different types of surgery commonly used to treat a trapped nerve in the neck. These range from relatively simple, minimally invasive procedures such as steroid injections, nerve root decompression, or radiofrequency ablation to more complicated surgeries that may involve fusion of the spinal vertebrae.
- Steroid injections can help reduce inflammation and pain caused by trapped nerves.
- Nerve root decompression works by shifting the pressure off the nerve so it can heal without being squeezed.
- Radiofrequency ablation destroys nerves that are causing pain signals to be felt elsewhere in the body such as along the arm or leg.
- Fusion surgery works by joining two vertebrae together using screws and rods to decrease back movement and remove pressure from a compressed nerve.
Each type of surgery carries with it certain risks and benefits associated with both short-term and long-term recovery outcomes, so it is important to consult with your doctor who can advise on which type of treatment could be most beneficial for you as an individual patient.
Prevention of a trapped nerve in the neck can be achieved by taking some proactive measures. A good place to start is to ensure your posture is correct when you are stationary and while walking. Keeping your shoulders relaxed and lowered so they are in line with your hips also helps to reduce stress on your neck muscles.
Stretches and strength exercises for the neck can also help to reduce the risk of developing a trapped nerve:
- Neck stretches
- Shoulder rolls
- Upper back strengthening exercises
- Neck strengthening exercises
Stretching is a simple, effective way to help ease the discomfort of a trapped nerve in the neck. It may seem counterintuitive to move your neck while it’s in pain, but gentle stretching can help reduce inflammation and promote proper alignment of the muscles and ligaments supporting the neck. Before beginning any stretching exercise, it is important to warm up with a few minutes of light cardiovascular activity such as walking or riding a stationary bike.
Here are some stretching exercises you can do on your own if you have a trapped nerve in your neck:
- Neck roll: Gently drop your chin towards your chest and make slow circles with your head three times in each direction.
- Side bends: With both arms reaching down either side, tilt your head to the left and hold for 20 seconds before switching sides.
- Forward bend: Slowly arch your neck forward until you feel a mild stretch. Hold for 15-30 seconds before releasing. Repeat 2-3 times on each side.
- Shoulder shrugs: Visualize pushing up against an imaginary wall behind you with both shoulders as you draw them up towards your ears, then release back down slowly after 10 seconds.
- Lateral flexion: Relaxing the shoulders, gently tilt both ears towards one shoulder without rotating the head or bending forward for 10–15 seconds before switching sides.
When combined with other treatments like physical therapy, rest, and medication management, these stretches may provide relief from symptoms associated with trapped nerves in the neck such as pain and tingling sensations that radiate through shoulders and arms.
Exercises are one of the best ways to help reduce the symptoms of a trapped nerve in your neck. Exercise can help to stretch and strengthen the muscles in your neck, which can reduce pain and make it easier for you to perform activities of daily life. It is important to start with gentle exercises and progress gradually, as this will give your muscles time to adjust.
Light stretching exercises for the neck such as
- turning your head side-to-side
- or up-and-down
can be done frequently during the day without causing much discomfort. More vigorous stretching exercises should be done more slowly and smoothly, pausing at any point if any pain is experienced. Strengthening exercises such as
- wall pushups
- or head turns with resistance
can also be helpful in improving muscle strength and stability around the neck area.
It is important to consult with your healthcare provider for advice on how to safely exercise if you have a trapped nerve in your neck, as well as seek advice on any further treatment you might need.
One of the primary ways to help prevent trapped nerves in the neck symptoms is to maintain proper posture. This includes keeping your head, neck, and spine aligned when you’re sitting, standing, and lifting. Proper posture not only helps alleviate existing symptoms but it’s also preventive in nature – if you use proper form, you may be able to keep certain nerve compressions from occurring at all.
When you’re sitting at a desk or computer, make sure that your monitor is set at eye level and that you stay seated upright. When sleeping, use a cervical pillow that supports your neck in its natural alignment – not one that pressures or pulls it forward or backward. And during physical activities like running or lifting weights, use proper form and listen to your body’s limitations to decrease the likelihood of a trapped nerve. It’s also necessary to stretch regularly so that your muscles can remain long and relaxed in order for nerves to glide freely around any potential ligament attachments they may have contact with while moving within the body.
Frequently Asked Questions
Common symptoms of a trapped nerve include:
- Pain, numbness, or tingling in the affected area
- Weakness in the affected muscles
- Burning sensation
- Aching or prickling sensation
- Difficulty sleeping due to uncomfortable sensations
- Loss of muscle control or coordination in the affected area
- Muscle spasms or twitching
Yes, a pinched or trapped nerve can cause neck pain. Nerve pain can be caused by a number of things, such as pressure on the nerve from a herniated disc, a bone spur, or a narrowing of the spine. The pain can range from dull and achy to sharp and shooting.
Symptoms of neck pain can vary depending on the cause, but common symptoms include:
- Pain in the neck, shoulders, and/or upper back
- Difficulty moving the neck, especially when trying to turn the head
- Stiffness in the neck
- Muscle spasms
- Numbness or tingling in the arms
- Weakness in the arms or hands
- Pain that radiates down the arm or into the hand
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Brent Stephens is a neck pain researcher and a medical professional who studies the causes, treatments, and prevention of neck pain. He may conduct clinical trials, review medical literature, and collaborate with other researchers to better understand this common condition and develop effective solutions for those who suffer from it. Through his work, he aims to improve the quality of life for individuals who are dealing with neck pain and to help prevent the condition from occurring in the first place.