The truth about trapped nerves…
‘I think I’ve trapped a nerve’; it’s something I hear all the time in clinic, but what does it mean? And can it be fixed?
What we’re generally referring to is either sharp pain, or paraesthesia (either tingling/burning/numbness/pins and needles) locally close to the spine, or referred elsewhere – commonly down the arms or legs but may also cause headaches or pain around the thoracic (mid-back) area.
It usually occurs when the intervertebral space (the gaps between the vertebrae – or spine bones) become narrowed and the discs that sit in these gaps are squashed. The disc(s) can then bulge out of the gap and put pressure on the roots of the nerves that exit the spine at these points. Depending on where this is happening will affect which nerve root is affected and where the pain is being referred to. For instance, pain into your head is likely to come from nerve compression at C2/3 (top of the neck) whilst pain in your fingers may be from nerve roots C6/7/8 (the area that’s level with your shoulders).
So whilst it may present as pain elsewhere, it’s originating from your spine. And the good news is, I love spines 😊
What causes it?
There are a few different possibilities, here are the most common:
- Wear & tear. As we age out discs naturally thin (which is why we naturally loose height), so there is less space at these gaps for the nerve roots and they’re more vulnerable to any of the following issues...
- Trauma. An injury such as a fall or car accident can disturb our spine and its discs. Remember they are designed to move, but if the trauma pushes things beyond their normal range – and we may only be talking minor shifts – it may take some time and help to settle.
- Muscle spasm. This is the most common one I see in clinic. The muscles adjacent to the spine are attached to the vertebrae but if they go into spasm (either because of repetitive or heavy overuse, trauma or prolonged postural changes) they will restrict the spines normal movement and close the gap between the vertebrae.
So what can we do to help? So much!
Firstly though, we need to settle the pain down. We will use gentle strategies in the clinic such as electrotherapy or acupuncture, and get you doing things at home to ease the pain, before we then use manual therapy to address the underlying cause. We also need to work on the associated muscles – we use graded exercises which start with small gentle movements to build stability, then start to stretch and strengthen the muscles. Exercise is vital to ensure a long term fix but the its equally vital to do the right things in the right order – if you’ve ever done ‘too much too soon’ you’ll know exactly what I mean!
And what can you do to help?
Well, prevention is better than cure. Regular exercise such as pilates and yoga are really good for keeping those core muscles strong and protecting our lovely spines. Keeping generally active and moving ensures that our joints stay nice and supple. Avoid anything that’s likely to put too much strain on your back – such as the classic – ‘I was lifting and twisting a (huge, heavy) plant pot’. And finally, if you do get any niggles then nip them in the bud, don’t try and soldier on hoping it’ll go. Use some ice, muscle rubs, pain killers and/or anti-inflammatories in the first instance, and stay as active as you comfortably can. If you’ve done all of the above and are still getting intense referred pain then speak to your GP regarding stronger nerve medication. And if it doesn’t settle within 5-7 days give us a shout. Treating something sooner rather than later always getter better and faster results!