What is cervical radiculopathy?

Cervical radiculopathy, also known as a pinched nerve or cervical neuropathy, is a condition that is caused when one of the nerves in the spinal cord in the neck is compressed. The cervical nerves control the muscle function and feeling in the back of the head, neck, shoulders and upper parts of the back and chest. Most people will experience a pinched nerve at some point in their life, but for some it can become a serious health condition.

Causes of cervical radiculopathy

The two main causes of cervical radiculopathy include:

  • Arthritis in the neck — approximately 75% of cervical radiculopathy arise from arthritis in the neck.
  • Bulging disc — a disc herniation can impinge a nerve that originates in the cervical spinal cord.

Disc herniation and arthritis in the neck can coexist, so it may be challenging to assign the symptoms to a specific cause.

Other causes of a pinched nerve include:

  • Trauma
  • Tumors
  • Instability caused by rheumatoid arthritis

Risk factors for cervical radiculopathy

Risk factors for a pinched nerve include activities that repeatedly place a load on the spine in the neck including:

  • High-impact sports
  • Accidental injuries to the neck
  • Old age
  • Degenerative joint disease

Symptoms of cervical radiculopathy

Pain that spreads into the arm, neck, chest, upper back and shoulders is the main symptom of cervical radiculopathy. The pain typically starts as sharp bursts, tingling, dull aches or numbness.

Other symptoms of a pinched nerve include:

  • Weakness in the affected area
  • Lack of coordination the hand
  • Pain when turning the head or straining the neck

Diagnosis of cervical radiculopathy

Cervical radiculopathy is diagnosed in a full medical and physical exam with your primary care doctor or orthopedic physician. In the physical exam, your physician will test for weakness due to the nerve compression.

The provider may order an x-ray, CT scan, MRI or other electrical study to measure your muscle or nerve function.

Treatments for cervical radiculopathy

Most patients with a pinched nerve will improve with conservative management, including pain medication, anti-inflammatory medication, neck traction and physical therapy. Initial treatment will concentrate on reducing pain and relieving any pressure on the nerves.

When the muscle spasms subside, your primary care doctor or orthopedic provider may recommend physical therapy. In physical therapy, the therapist may recommend heat and cold therapies, electrical stimulation or stretching exercises.

Patients who have persistent pain may require surgery or a steroid injection into the cervical nerve.

Recovery from cervical radiculopathy

Most patients have a full recovery from cervical radiculopathy within six weeks. To prevent future cases, it is important to maintain a reasonable weight, good muscle conditioning and avoid strain on the neck and back.

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