A pinched nerve is an injury to a nerve or set of nerves. It occurs when too much pressure is put on a nerve by surrounding tissue, such as cartilage, tendons, muscles or bones. The pressure decreases the function of the nerve and results in pain, numbness or weakness. Early diagnosis is important to prevent further damage.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a pinched nerve in the back can be caused by a variety of conditions, including osteoarthritis, a herniated disc, poor posture and obesity. A pinched nerve in the back can also be brought on by hard physical work or injury.
A nerve can be compared to an electrical cord, carrying messages from the brain to the rest of the body. Information travels along each nerve by an electrochemical signal. If the signal is damaged, the message can't be properly transmitted.
Signs and Symptoms
The most common signs and symptoms of a pinched nerve in the back include pain and numbness in the legs. Pain may be either sharp or burning, and often radiates outward. Coughing or sneezing usually intensifies the pain. Numbness may be perceived as "pins and needles," and may or may not be accompanied by weakness. There may also be twitching of the affected muscles or painful muscle spasms in the back. Sometimes there is numbness or weakness, but no pain.
If a doctor suspects you have a pinched nerve, he will order an x-ray to assess spinal injury or arthritis. Depending on the severity of the pain, he may also order a CT scan or MRI. These imaging studies provide more detailed information that may not be seen on an x-ray.
There are some self-care options for a pinched nerve. Alternate between ice and heat applied to the affected area every twenty minutes. A hot shower or a massage may provide some relief. An over-the-counter anti-inflammatory such as Aleve may take the edge off the pain. If these strategies don't provide relief, call your doctor. He may prescribe physical therapy, prescription medication or cortisone injections. In some cases surgery may be necessary.
Although sometimes a pinched nerve will heal from rest, there are certain signs that you should call your doctor. These signs would include pain that lasts more than a couple of days or pain that intensifies after efforts at self-care were to no avail. Call the doctor if you have sudden onset of weakness, such as a leg that won't hold your weight, or a sudden sensation of profound numbness. Sudden loss of bowel or bladder control is a medical emergency.
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