What is Cervical Radiculopathy?
Nerve fibers carry signals from one part of the body to another. Nerves extend down from the brain though the spinal column to various parts of the body. They transmit information that is interpreted into sensation and movement. When a cervical nerve exits the cervical spine and becomes irritated or compressed this is referred to as Cervical Radiculopathy or a “pinched nerve”.
What causes Cervical Radiculopathy?
Any condition in which a cervical nerve becomes injured, inflamed, or compressed can result in Cervical Radiculopathy. In middle aged or older populations the most common causes include cervical stenosis, degenerative disc disease and bone spurs. In younger people a herniated disc of the cervical spine or trauma are common culprits. Cervical stenosis and degenerative disc disease are progressive conditions that happen over time and can cause a cervical nerve to become pinched due to deterioration of the spinal canal or cervical bones. Disc herniation often occurs as a result of strenuous lifting, pulling or twisting movements. If the herniated disc bulges into the spinal canal it can put pressure on a cervical nerve root leading to Cervical Radiculopathy.
What are the symptoms of Cervical Radiculopathy?
Symptoms of Cervical Radiculopathy can vary depending on the specific cervical nerve involved however, pain is usually the primary concern. Although the condition occurs in the spine, the radiating pain can be felt in the tissues though which the nerve passes. In general, this pain may radiate from the neck outward to the shoulder, arm, wrist or hand (most common).
Some patients describe the pain as shooting, like an electrical current, while others report a sharp burning sensation, or even a dull ache. In some cases neck and arm movements can increase or decrease the severity of the pain.
Headaches are common and numbness or tingling may be present. Some clients report muscle weakness in the affected extremity.
How is Cervical Radiculopathy diagnosed?
Diagnosis begins by reviewing a detailed medical history and associated symptoms. Your physician will perform a thorough examination looking for changes in reflexes, sensation, or muscle weakness. The neck, shoulder, arms and hands may be manipulated to determine what increases or decreases pain. The doctor may order tests such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) or electromyography (EMG) to survey internal structure and nerve conduction.
How is Cervical Radiculopathy treated?
A majority of patients do not require treatment for Cervical Radiculopathy. For some, the pain dissipates quickly in a matter of days, while for others it may take a few weeks or longer. In cases where the pain does not improve or is particularly severe treatment may be required.
The specific course of treatment depends on the underlying cause. Physical therapy and exercise can increase flexibility and mobility of the affected extremity. Ice or heat may be used to aid in the reduction of pain and inflammation. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or naproxen and pain relievers such as acetaminophen may also help. Your physician may prescribe muscle relaxants, oral steroids, or narcotics. A soft cervical collar may also be recommended to improve alignment and stabilize the neck.
Surgery may be indicated if conservative measures fail to adequately relieve pain or if symptoms worsen. The precise surgery required depends on the specific cause of the Cervical Radiculopathy. In general, the procedure consists of decompressing the nerve root and fusion of the involved cervical vertebra. It should be noted that surgical decompression to relieve arm and hand pain is much more reliable than the surgery for neck pain.
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