Q: How do I know if I have a pinched nerve in my neck?
A: A pinched nerve, which happens when bone, muscle, cartilage, or tendons press on a nerve, can cause significant discomfort and weakness. Often occurring in the neck, wrist, or back of the leg, the compressed nerve can cause pain radiating down a limb or numbness and a loss of sensation. You may feel tingly or as if the affected body part is on “pins and needles,” and you may experience muscle weakness.
A pinched nerve in the neck, called cervical radiculopathy, can cause burning or sharp pain that radiates into the shoulder, and muscle weakness and numbness running down the arm to the hand. The most common cause is an aging disk in the spine or a herniated (bulging) disk.
Your risk of experiencing a pinched nerve is elevated if you are obese; have an illness such as thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, or diabetes; or have a job or hobby that relies on repetitive motion. People who slump or don’t practice good posture when they sit or stand may also be prone to pinched nerves. In most cases, the pain due to a pinched nerve resolves within days or weeks.
Sufferers may find relief with rest and over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, and generics) and naproxen (Aleve and generics). If discomfort doesn’t abate within a few days, or weakness accompanies your pain, consult your doctor. He or she may prescribe oral corticosteroids or steroid injections to reduce inflammation or suggest a course of physical therapy. Wearing a soft cervical collar for a short time may help for cervical radiculopathy by limiting movement and giving your neck muscles a chance to rest.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley 2019 Back Pain and Osteoporosis White Paper.
Also see 11 Ways to Head Off Neck Pain.