When your body feels pain, it may be difficult to identify the source of such pain. Could it be a pinched nerve? What does a pinched nerve feel like?
A pinched nerve can be the culprit behind a number of sudden and nagging pains. Wrist issues, elbow problems, hand pain, numb fingers, a soft limp, hip pain, back pain, neck pain – each of these can and do occur as a result of a compressed or compromised spinal nerve, or a compression point somewhere else in the body. But what does a pinched nerve feel like?
Differentiating between a pinched nerve and other sources of nerve pain, or pain in general, can help patients better understand their condition and develop the means to avoid recurring pain, as well as develop a heightened awareness for how they can aid in their own recovery and pain treatment.
Doctors and specialists working with their patients can improve treatment adherence this way, by educating their patients on the mechanisms behind their injury, how certain treatment options work to resolve the pain, and how proactive measures can be taken to avoid pain in the future.
What is a Pinched Nerve?
Nerves run like blood vessels throughout the body, forming chains of cells that relay certain electrical pulses as a way to communicate between the brain and every part of the body, or between body parts themselves. Like blood vessels, nerves can become constricted, damaging the nerve in the process, and impeding the body’s ability to communicate with other parts of itself.
This can result in pain, alongside other symptoms, ranging from mild numbness to severe problems like paralysis and incontinence. Note that the latter, alongside numbness coupled with fever mean you should get to an emergency room or call your doctor.
Numbness can be temporarily induced by cutting off blood supply or constricting a nerve for some time. If you sit in an awkward position that reduces blood flow to your leg, or keep your arm held high for a long time, you will notice that your foot or hand can go cold, and it becomes difficult to move until blood flow is restored. But a pinched nerve is something else entirely.
Most cases of pinched nerves, or radiculopathy, are not necessarily caused by an external factor such as a tightened belt or an awkward posture. They are usually caused by internal factors.
How Nerves Get Pinched
If you’ve ever hurt your back, you might have noticed a subsequent pain or feeling of weakness running down a leg or arm. Similarly, whiplash and damage to your neck can result in shoulder and arm pain for some time, making it incredibly difficult to even hold onto the steering wheel, let alone competently drive. This is because while the brain is inarguably the most important part of the central nervous system, it’s through the spinal cord that every signal in the body is relayed.
The cord attaches to multiple nerve roots that originate at different points of the spine. This can lead to degenerative disc disease due to compression by inflamed, enlarged, or herniated tissue.
Often, the culprit in these situations is one of the spinal discs between your vertebrae that absorb shock and allow for spinal flexion, twisting, and extension. A back or neck injury can cause the area surrounding a nerve root to become inflamed, causing a pinched nerve.
Nerves can also be pinched by tissue that shouldn’t necessarily be there. Tumor-related nerve pain can occur even in cases where the abnormal growth is benign, as it can press on the surrounding nerves and cause pain.
Inflammation due to overuse is another common cause of pinched nerves and nerve pain. People who do a lot of work with their hands and spend long hours working the muscles in their forearms can get overuse injuries as a result of their work. These occur when excessive use leaves the tendons surrounding the nerve tunnels in the arm inflamed, causing pinching at a point near the elbow or wrist joint.
A pinched nerve in the elbow is called cubital tunnel syndrome. It is named after the nerve tunnel that is narrowed due to the inflammation in the area. A pinched nerve in the wrist is called carpal tunnel syndrome, in which the median nerve is compressed by a narrowed carpal tunnel.
What Does a Pinched Nerve Feel Like?
So, what does a pinched nerve feel like? The symptoms you will experience as a result of your pinched nerve depend on what nerve has been pinched, and where. Common symptoms for different common nerve injuries include:
- Lower back: Pain or numbness running down one leg, throughout the buttock, and in the lower back.
- Upper back: Pain along the trunk, chest, and arms.
- Neck: Pain in the upper back, arms, shoulders, and neck.
- Wrist: Pain in the palm, thumb, index finger, middle finger, and ring finger.
- Elbow: Pain running down the forearm, part of the ring finger, and the pinkie.
In general, pinched nerves result in numbness and weakness, difficulty executing normal functions with that limb or muscle, numbing or even sharp intermittent pain, and tingling sensations.
When checking for a pinched nerve, a doctor will usually begin their physical examination by asking you to perform a few basic movements to narrow down the cause of the injury, before moving onto imaging tests, such as x-rays or MRIs.
Should You See a Doctor?
If you feel any pain that you might classify as severe, you should go see a medical professional. If you are experiencing any severe symptoms such as no feeling, paralysis, fever, or incontinence, you need to contact a doctor immediately or go to the ER.
In most cases of pinched nerves, the pain resolves itself as the injury or inflammation subsides, whether it’s an overused tendon or a herniated disc. You can use rest, cooling, moderate movement, an anti-inflammatory diet, and over-the-counter pain medication to manage your symptoms and improve daily function. When cooling the injury or nerve, avoid using ice directly on your skin. Use a cooling gel or wrap some frozen vegetables in a dry cloth.
If the pain is not improving at all after multiple days of self-care, you should visit a medical professional.
A doctor will also be able to advise you on how to prevent recurring injuries via daily stretches, safe mobility exercises, and preventative care, especially if your pinched nerve was job-related.