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Home > Five Commonly Believed Myths about “Pinched” Nerves in the Spine

Five Commonly Believed Myths about “Pinched” Nerves in the Spine

Dr. Carlson in the operating room

Jeffrey R. Carlson, MD, CPE

As a spine surgeon, I answer questions from patients daily having to do with spine-related issues.  I also find that I must frequently correct misinformation or commonly held beliefs about pinched nerves and how they impact the body.  In this article, I thought it would be prudent to address some of the more common myths I hear over and over during office hours.  Keep reading because you may be surprised at what you thought you “knew” about this subject!

Myth #1 – A Pinched Spinal Nerve Causes Back/Neck Pain

A pinched spinal nerve rarely produces back or neck pain. Most often, pain in the neck or cervical spine, or lower back will be related to muscle, tendon or arthritic pain.  Muscle strains, sprains and spasms can be quite severe and cause such pain that patients believe it has to be related to something bad, like a pinched nerve.  As a general rule, if you can reproduce the pain by pressing on a spot in your back or neck, it is not related to a pinched nerve.

Myth #2 – A Pinched Spinal Nerve Can only be Caused by an Accident

You don’t have to be in a motor-vehicle accident, fall off a horse, or get hit by a linebacker playing football to have a pinched spinal nerve. A nerve can be pinched by sneezing, twisting, bending, moving your head, breathing, or living. Doing basically any activity of life can cause a nerve to be compressed.  Why?  Typically, most of us injure ourselves a little at a time, through micro-traumas.  Suddenly, these traumas add up, and then our body yells, “ENOUGH!” and the pain and dysfunction start. A pinched nerve can happen in this way as well.

Myth #3 – Pinched Nerves Just Happen to Older People

If you are an adult, you can have a pinched nerve.  Children, adolescents, and teens are pretty much exempt, except in rare circumstances. Younger adult patients have discs that are filled with water and can rupture portions that ooze out and “pinch” the nerves.  As we get older and lose the water in the discs, the discs will bulge and pinch the nearby nerves – we call this degenerative disc disease.

Myth #4 – A Pinched Spinal Nerve Feels Like a Pinch

Unfortunately, this is poorly named.  It is named that, not because that’s how the nerve feels, but because the nerve looks “pinched” on certain diagnostic imaging, like MR scans.  If you were to ask ten people how their pinched nerve feels, you may get ten differing responses. Numb, tingling, stabbing, throbbing, dull, aching, sharp, zinging, pins and needles, pressure, electric shock, the adjectives are endless, but typically pinching isn’t one of them.

Myth #5 – A Pinched Spinal Nerve Requires Surgery to Get Better

Thankfully, this is usually not the case at all.  When diagnosed accurately, treated early and appropriately, AND if there isn’t a structural reason for the nerve compression, such as a disc herniation, bone spur or spinal stenosis, pinched spinal nerves can often be treated successfully with conservative treatment options which do not require that the patient undergo spine surgery.

Those options include NSAIDS, rest and behavior modification, Physical Therapy, oral anti-inflammatory medication, oral steroids, epidural steroid injections, etc.  The key is to reduce the inflammation of the nerve early, before it becomes chronic and permanent.

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