Neck and arm pain? What to do about a pinched nerve

Back & Neck

by Ishaq Syed, MD

Aug 7, 2020

A common cause of neck and arm pain is a pinched nerve, also known as cervical radiculopathy. Several structures in the cervical spine can cause pressure on a nerve as it branches from the spinal cord to travel down your arm where it provides motor and sensory function.  

Two of the most common culprits behind a pinched nerve are herniated discs and bone spurs. Here’s what you need to know about these causes of neck and arm pain — and when to consult an orthopedic specialist for help.

Herniated disc

A disc herniation occurs when the soft gel-like material (nucleous pulposis) in the center of the disc leaks out of a defect in the stronger outer ring (nucelous fibrosis). The disc material can cause pressure on a nerve resulting in pain, numbness and tingling that radiates from your neck, sometimes into your shoulder blade and down your arm.

The good news is, some soft disc herniations can gradually resolve on their own with time and conservative treatment. Common treatment plans often include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) medications, physical therapy and rest.  

Bone spur

Bone spurs occur as a part of cervical spondylosis, which is a term referring to neck arthritis. This is an age-related process and a result of wear and tear. Over time, your joints and discs degenerate, which can result in overgrowth of bone — commonly referred to as bone spurs. Pain from these spurs can project from the joints of the vertebra as the nerve exits the spine and travels down your arm.  

Bone spurs typically do not resolve on their own. However, your pain and any other symptoms can be treated with conservative treatment similar to the methods above for a herniated disc: NSAIDS, medication, physical therapy and rest. 

Related: What causes cricks in the neck?

Neck and arm pain that won’t go away

If your nerve pain does not resolve with conservative treatment or if the compression causes significant pressure on the spinal cord or weakness, a spine surgeon will typically recommend surgery to alleviate the pressure.  

There are various surgical options for the treatment of a pinched nerve. The technique and approach is determined by the surgeon taking into consideration various factors, including the location of the nerve compression, alignment of your spine and what the least invasive approach is to accomplish the goal of alleviating the structural compression on the nerve. 

If you’re dealing with persistent neck or arm pain, talk to your doctor about your options for surgery. Modern advancements and minimally invasive techniques have made surgery safer, led to shorter hospital stays and more it possible for you to make a rapid return to activity and work.  

Ready to get rid of neck pain and move better today? Find an orthopedic specialist near you.


About the Author

Ishaq Y. Syed, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. Dr. Syed actively participates in teaching orthopedic residents and in spinal research. He performs both traditional and minimally invasive surgeries. He specializes in the treatment of spinal conditions including but not limited to: arthritis of the spine, degenerative disc disease, herniated discs, pinched nerves/Sciatica/Radiculopathy, spinal deformities, traumatic injury to the spine, spinal stenosis and spine tumors. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Syed today.

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