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The neck contains a network of delicate spinal bones, major nerves, and muscles to support and turn the head. While this complexity is vital to our bodies' functions, it also carries the risk of nerves becoming trapped or compressed.

Pinched nerves are annoying and painful, but are not typically dangerous. In many cases, they go away on their own. Sometimes, however, a pinched nerve can persist or lead to more serious problems. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and warning signs can help someone with neck pain decide whether to seek further help.

Symptoms

One of the primary symptoms of a pinched neck nerve is pain. The pain may be in the neck, but it could also develop in the shoulder, upper back, or arms — elsewhere along the path of the nerve.

Some people feel tingling, numbness, burning, or radiating pain into their arms and fingers. Moving the neck may become uncomfortable.

Rear view shot of a woman suffering from a shoulder pain NickyLloyd / Getty Images

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Causes

Repetitive motions and sleeping or working in an awkward position can cause tense muscles, which then put pressure on the spinal cord and lead to pinched nerves.

In other cases, one of the soft disks that cushion the vertebrae can slip out of place. This is called a herniated or slipped disk and it can result in a pinched nerve in the spine.

One man waking up and suffering from neck ache tommaso79 / Getty Images

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Risk Factors

Some people are more likely to experience pinched nerves than others. As we age, our vertebrae become bonier and crowd closer together, increasing the risk of slipped disks and pinched nerves. Medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and degenerative disk disease could also increase the risk.

Pinched nerves are a common injury for office workers or people who spend time craning their necks upward, such as painters and electricians.

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When to be Concerned

A few warning signs and symptoms that develop from a pinched nerve can indicate a more serious issue. If a person is unable to move their neck or arm, or if the pain comes with confusion, a high fever, or nausea, they should seek medical attention.

If the pinched nerve was caused by an impact, like a fall or car accident, it's worth it to go to the hospital and make sure there wasn't a more serious injury.

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Diagnosis

When you see a doctor about a pinched nerve, they will ask about the pain and try to rule out any more serious injuries or illnesses. They may conduct a physical examination, checking for muscle weakness, changing reflexes, and range of motion.

If a physical exam does not provide enough information, the doctor may recommend further tests. X-rays and MRI scans can help the doctor see abnormalities in the spine. An electromyography or EMG test uses electrical pulses to test if nerves are working correctly.

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Home Treatments

The primary home treatment for a pinched nerve in the neck is rest. Over-the-counter painkillers can help with the discomfort. Warm compresses, heating pads, and warm showers can also ease the pain.

Gently stretching and massaging the painful area can help a pinched nerve heal faster. It's not necessary to completely avoid moving the neck, but move slowly and smoothly to avoid jarring.

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Further Treatments

Some people have chronic or severe pinched nerves and need more extensive treatment. If the pain isn't responding to ibuprofen or acetaminophen, a doctor may precribe a steroid medication to relax the muscles and help with pain. A physical therapist can provide stretches and exercises to strengthen the neck, and a brace can keep it in the best position for healing.

In particularly severe cases that do not respond to traditional treatments, surgery can relieve the pressure on the nerves.

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Prognosis

Most people with a pinched nerve will recover fully. Within a week, the symptoms should start to subside, though it may take four to six weeks to heal completely.

Some people experience recurring pinched nerves or pinched nerves that take longer to heal. In these cases, a doctor may be able to suggest long-term strategies for preventing further pain.

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Preventing Pinched Nerves

We cannot always prevent a pinched nerve, but there are ways to reduce risk. Regular stretching and maintaining good posture can help keep nerves from becoming trapped in the first place.

When working, whether at a computer or at a job that requires craning the neck, try to take breaks, use ergonomic equipment where possible, and vary work tasks to incorporate a wider range of movement.

Woman stretching while working from a home office Stefan Tomic / Getty Images

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Research Into Pinched Nerves

The National Spine Health Foundation is a consortium of doctors and researchers hoping to improve spine health and reduce pain. Their global studies have focused on developing long-term solutions that may reduce the risks of pinched nerves in the future.

This includes developing better replacement disks and treatments for people with degenerative disk disease and chronic neck pain.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.