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Understanding Cervical Radicular Pain: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

Cervical Radicular Pain

Cervical radicular pain, commonly referred to as a “pinched nerve” in the neck, is a condition resulting from the compression or irritation of the nerve roots in the cervical spine. The cervical spine consists of the first seven vertebrae in the spine, located in the neck region. When these nerve roots are compressed or irritated, it can lead to a range of symptoms, including pain, numbness, and weakness, often radiating from the neck into the shoulders, arm, and even the hand. This article explores the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options for cervical radicular pain, offering insights into managing this condition effectively.

Causes

Cervical radicular pain is often caused by degenerative changes in the spine’s structures as people age. The main culprits include:

Herniated Discs: When the discs between the vertebrae bulge out, they can press on nerve roots.

Bone Spurs: Osteoarthritis can lead to the formation of bone spurs that can impinge on nerve roots.

Spinal Stenosis: Narrowing of the spinal canal can compress the nerves within.

Injury: Trauma from accidents or sports can cause immediate pressure on nerve roots. 

Repetitive or sustained movements: desk workers and those who constantly look down or up for work are at a higher risk of cervical radicular pain.

Other times, we aren’t certain of the cause. 

Symptoms

The symptoms of cervical radicular pain can vary depending on the affected nerve root but commonly include:

Pain: Often described as burning or sharp, radiating down the arm or into the shoulder blade.

Numbness: A lack of sensation in the fingers or hand, sometimes even the face.

Weakness: Muscle weakness in the arm, shoulder, or hand.

Tingling: A “pins and needles” sensation in the arm or hand, often the first two or three fingers.

Headaches: sometimes headaches are associated with cervical radiculopathies. 

Symptoms can be exacerbated by certain movements or positions of the neck, often causing discomfort during activities like driving or reading. Most often these symptoms are noticed at rest and are relieved with activity.

Diagnosis

Cervical Radicular Pain: Causes & Treatment Guide

Diagnosing cervical radicular pain typically involves a combination of a patient’s medical history, physical examination, and diagnostic tests. During the examination, a healthcare provider may check for changes in reflexes, muscle weakness, and loss of sensation. Imaging tests such as MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or CT (Computed Tomography) scans are often used to identify the specific location and cause of the nerve root compression. In some cases, an EMG (Electromyography) may be performed to evaluate the electrical activity of muscles. However, we are realizing these tests are not as helpful in diagnosing as we once thought. They are often misleading, which can lead to unnecessary procedures. 

Here are Freedom PT, we use a “repeated movement exam” to help identify the cause and solution to the problem without invasive procedures. Because cervical radicular pain is typically worse at rest or with repeated activity, we are often able to identify an exercise to negate the daily effects of repetitive movements or sustained postures. 

Treatment Options

Treatment for cervical radicular pain aims to relieve pain, improve function, and prevent further injury. Treatment strategies can vary, ranging from conservative methods to surgical interventions, depending on the severity of the condition.

Physical Therapy: we find the use of a repeated movement to negate the daily grind to be one of the most effective ways of treating people with cervical radicular pain. 

Interventional Treatments: Injections, such as epidural steroid injections, can help reduce inflammation and relieve pain.

Surgical Treatments: Surgery may be considered for cases where conservative treatments have failed to provide relief or if there is significant neurological deficit. Common procedures include discectomy, where the herniated disc pressing on the nerve is removed, and spinal fusion, which stabilizes the affected area of the spine. That being said, we often see people who have been recommended surgery for this condition. They have given us the opportunity to work with them and are often able to avoid surgery!

Living with Cervical radicular pain

For many individuals, cervical radicular pain can be ongoing for years. We consistently see clients who have been to multiple providers without much to show for their time and money. At Freedom PT, we believe radicular pain can often be solved with simple exercises and good education. 

Conclusion

Cervical radicular pain is a condition that, while potentially painful and debilitating, can often be managed effectively through a combination of conservative treatments, interventional strategies, and, in some cases, surgery. If this is something you are dealing with, this likely does not need to be the new normal. People often find good improvement with high quality physical therapy and a few temporary lifestyle modifications. 

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AUTHOR

Dr. John DeVries

Freedom Physical Therapy and Wellness

We help those frustrated with their current physical status get back to doing the things they enjoy.
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