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A pinched nerve, also called a compressed nerve, occurs when something puts pressure on a nerve. The nervous symptom is made up of billions of nerve cells throughout our bodies. They react to environmental stimulation and send signals to the brain. After interpreting these signals, the brain determines an appropriate reaction and sends signals in return.

When a nerve is pinched under pressure, it can't function properly. Affected nerve cells send pain and other sensations as warning signals.

Types of Pinched Nerves

Pinched nerves can develop anywhere, whenever surrounding tissue — such as bone, muscle, tendons, or cartilage — press on or squeeze nerve cells. Cervical nerves in the neck and shoulder are most often affected. Other common sites include the thoracic and lumbar nerves in the chest and low back, respectively.

A pinched ulnar nerve in the arm or elbow is often referred to as hitting the "funny bone." The median nerve running along the wrist and hand is also susceptible to compression, causing carpal tunnel syndrome.

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General Symptoms

Symptoms of a pinched nerve may include sharp or burning pain, a dull ache, tingling, numbness, burning, or prickling. Pain may be consistent or occur sporadically in bursts that radiate outwards from the original location.

Symptoms can occur anywhere along the affected nerve, so pain or tingling in one spot doesn't always mean that's where the compression is.

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Specific Symptoms

Some symptoms of pinched nerves vary according to location. Cervical compressions may cause a stiff neck and pain or numbness in the shoulders and arms. Some daily tasks may be difficult because turning your head aggravates the pinched nerve.

A pinched nerve in the lower back can trigger sharp, shooting pains in the back, hips, buttocks, and legs. Pinched nerves in the chest can also cause pain in the chest and arms, but never assume chest pain is due to a pinched nerve. Consult a medical professional immediately to rule out other possible causes.

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Causes of Acute Pinched Nerves

A pinched nerve can develop gradually over time or occur suddenly with no warning. Slipped or herniated discs in the spine can cause sudden, acute pinched nerves in the back and neck.

Other potential causes of acute pinched nerves include athletic injuries, accidents, and awkward or abrupt movement while lifting, twisting, or pulling.

Shot of a mature man experiencing back pain while out for a ride on his mountain bike Mikolette / Getty Images

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Gradual Causes

Age-related wear and tear on the spine can cause pinched nerves. Discs between vertebrae dry out and shrink, which forces vertebrae closer together. The vertebrae grow small outcroppings of bone, called bone spurs, to compensate. Bone spurs eventually fill enough space to pinch nerve roots in the spinal column.

Repetitive tasks, such as typing, using a mouse, and other tasks requiring fine motor skills, can strain muscles and ligaments in the hands and wrists. Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when muscle and ligament tissue pinches the median nerve.

Hand holding computer mouse having wrist pain chat9780 / Getty Images

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Diagnosis

Doctors diagnose pinched nerves with a physical exam and medical history. A doctor may ask about symptoms and any accidents or events that preceded pain or injury. They will also want to know what actions aggravate or relieve the pain.

Imaging tests, such as an EMG, MRI, or CT scan, may be used to confirm a diagnosis for severe symptoms or to investigate further if symptoms don't ease within 6 to 8 weeks.

Mature Woman In Consultation With Female Doctor Sitting On Examination Couch In Office monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images

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Nonmedical Interventions

Sometimes rest can help a pinched nerve to heal on its own within days or weeks. This is especially important for those caused by injury or carpel tunnel syndrome.

A relatively common problem with carpal tunnel syndrome is that repetitive tasks are necessary for work, which may lead to ignoring the pain or returning to work too soon. Over-the-counter medications can help with pain and inflammation, but rest should still be prioritized.

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Nonsurgical Treatment

A soft cervical collar is a padded device that holds the neck in one position to avoid aggravating a pinched nerve and give the muscles in the neck time to heal. Cervical collars are only worn for a short time.

Physical therapy is another non-surgical intervention for more severe or chronic pinched nerves. Therapists help clients strengthen muscles, increase flexibility, and improve range of motion. Prescription medications, such as anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids, can be used in combination with other interventions.

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Surgery

If other treatments don't correct a pinched nerve, doctors may suggest surgery. This approach can remove bone spurs and stabilize the spine by fusing two vertebrae into a single bone, easing back and neck pain.

Artificial disk replacement, which involves inserting a synthetic disk between vertebrae, is another option. Carpal tunnel syndrome is often treated with surgery to relieve pressure on the median nerve.

Concentrated surgeon performing surgery with her team jacoblund / Getty Images

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Prognosis and Prevention

The prognosis for a pinched nerve is usually very good, especially with early intervention. Of course, it's always better to avoid a painful condition in the first place.

Lower your risk by maintaining good posture and a healthy weight. Stretching exercises to increase flexibility may help with preventing pinched nerves, as well. Avoid sitting or lying in one position for an extended period, and try not to cross your legs while sitting down. Take breaks from repetitive motions frequently to give the hands and wrists a break.

Rear View Of A Businessman Stretching His Arms In Office AndreyPopov / Getty Images

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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.