Ask Dr. Wills: What Is Radiculopathy?
Our nerves transmit information to our brains. Spine surgeon Dr. Nicholas Wills reviews the relationship between our nerves and our spinal cord, and explains how pressure can disrupt nerve function, causing arm or leg pain.
Our nerves are the information highway that carries signals from the body to the brain and spinal cord. When the root of a spinal nerve is compressed, it causes a medical condition called radiculopathy. Dr. Wills explains how pressure on nerves can disrupt nerve transmissions and trigger pain, tingling, numbness, or weakness.
Understanding nerve issues
“A nerve becomes pinched when surrounding bones, cartilage, muscles, or tendons put too much pressure on it,” says Dr. Wills. “The additional force can irritate the nerve tissue, the myelin sheath that covers and protects the nerve, or both. Irritated nerves can’t conduct sensory impulses to the brain, causing a feeling of numbness. If the nerve becomes inflamed, it may also begin sending signals to the brain that trigger pain or a prickling sensation. Many people describe the prickling or tingling sensation as the feeling they experience when a hand or foot ‘falls asleep.’ The sense of a limb that’s fallen asleep is momentary; but nerve inflammation can cause a tingling feeling that doesn’t fade after a few minutes—it persists.
Radiculopathy in the spine
“When this condition occurs in the spine, it is called radiculopathy. Radiculopathy can occur at any point along the spine from the neck along the middle back to the lower spine. However, radiculopathy most frequently affects the neck, where it’s called cervical radiculopathy, and the lower back, where we refer to the damage as lumbar radiculopathy or sciatica.”
Symptoms to look for
When radiculopathy increases the pressure on a nerve from the spinal cord, over time the increased pressure can damage the nerve and irritate or damage peripheral nerves beyond the spinal chord. Symptoms accompanying a pinched spinal nerve include the following:
- Uncomfortable tingling sensations. This tingling is similar to the prickling feeling you experience when your foot falls asleep, except that prickling caused by a pinched nerve is persistent; it doesn’t shake out in a few minutes.
- The discomfort caused by a pinched nerve is often described as “sharp” and “electrical.”
- Muscle weakness. This symptom may occur in severe cases where a nerve controlling a muscle has been irritated.
When to see a provider
“In most cases, nerve compression is temporary, and people recover within a few weeks with rest and conservative treatment,” notes Dr. Wills. “However, if symptoms persist beyond a few weeks, it’s time to contact the spine specialists at Summit Orthopedics. When pain doesn’t resolve with conservative treatment, we become concerned about chronic damage. The longer the nerve is compressed, the more it can be damaged, and the longer it will take for the nerve to repair itself. In some cases, without surgical treatment, there may be permanent nerve injury.”
Summit Orthopedics is home to the area’s top spine specialists for radiculopathy treatment, with nonsurgical experts with a suite of conservative treatment options, as well as fellowship-trained spine surgeons available to consult with you and discuss appropriate surgical options if needed.
More resources for you
- Watch the video: Knowing When To Seek Treatment For Spine Pain
- Get the question answered: How Do I Know If I Have Lumbar Radiculopathy?
- Read the article: When Surgery Is effective For Pinched Nerves
- Check out additional information on Summit’s approach to spine care
- See Summit’s treatment options for neck, back, and spine care
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