Nerves leave the spinal cord and travel to other parts of the body, providing feeling and muscle movement. Radiculopathy is the irritation of a nerve root near the spine (the radicular nerve), which may be pinched, inflamed, or ineffective due to lack of blood flow.
Symptoms of radiculopathy include:
Radiculopathy occurs most often in the neck (cervical radiculopathy) or the lower back (lumbar radiculopathy). It rarely affects the thoracic spine (mid-back). In addition to causing back pain, radiculopathy may cause pain to radiate down the arm or leg.
Anything that presses on a nerve root (pinching or rubbing against the nerve) or inhibits blood flow to a nerve can cause radiculopathy. Common causes include:
Each nerve goes to a specific muscle group and sensory area, so a doctor can often determine the location of the irritated nerve root by evaluating symptoms in other parts of the body.
A pinched or irritated nerve in the lower back will cause symptoms in the buttocks, legs, and feet. Lumbar radiculopathy symptoms include:
Lumbar radiculopathy that causes pain down the back of the leg may also be called "sciatica."
When radiculopathy occurs in the neck,, the affected areas are usually in the arms and hands. Symptoms of cervical radiculopathy depend on which nerve root is irritated, and can radiate along the length of the arm and extend into the fingers.
The first treatment choices for radiculopathy are often medication and physical therapy. Undertaking an appropriate exercise program and improving your body mechanics—such as working on your posture—can help take pressure off the affected nerve.
For those with cervical radiculopathy, cervical collars (also known as neck braces) can support the neck and limit motion while the neck is healing. Neck braces should only be worn for short periods of time to avoid loss of strength in the neck muscles. Also, a special cervical pillow may help ease pain at night for better sleep.
Other treatment options that may take pressure off the nerve include traction, spinal decompression, or chiropractic work.
If more conservative measures don't work, your doctor may suggest a nerve block. During this procedure, a small amount of cortisone is injected into the bony spinal canal in an effort to control inflammation and ease pain. The pain relief is only temporary. The injection does not always work and is often solely used in an effort to postpone surgery.
Doctors will generally only consider surgery for radiculopathy if multiple nerves are irritated, other treatments do not work, and/or nerve function is being lost.
Cordingley, G. (2005). Cervical radiculopathy: Diagnosing a pinched nerve in the neck. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from http://www.cordingleyneurology.com/cervicalradicdx.html
Skelton, A. (2010). Lumbar radiculopathy: Proper diagnosis key to effective treatment of back and leg pain. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from http://www.spineuniverse.com/conditions/back-pain/low-back-pain/lumbar-radiculopathy-proper-diagnosis-key
University of Maryland Spine Program Staff. (2007). A patient's guide to cervical radiculopathy. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from http://www.umm.edu/spinecenter/education/cervical_radiculopathy.htm
Verkuilen, P. (2005). Lumbar and cervical radiculopathy. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from http://www.spine-health.com/conditions/pain/lumbar-and-cervical-radiculopathy
information on health-related topics, not medical advice, diagnosis or
treatment recommendations. Please consult your physician if you have questions