A ‘pinch’ in the back – everything you need to know about a ‘pinched nerve’
After receiving an email from a concerned past client last week with the subject line: “Pinched Nerve Lower Back – Help!” . I thought I would share with you exactly what a pinched nerve is, what causes it, and what you can do to avoid and/or treat it because as many people can attest to, it is one of ‘the most painful experience of their life’.
So what exactly is it?
First and foremost, lets get the definition correct. A ‘pinched’ nerve is actually the non-technical term for nerve compression. There are lots of possible causes for this to happen, and I will explain the two most common reasons in this article. Nerve compression is a common condition, with 80% of the population experiencing back pain at some point in their life.
The best thing you can do when you start to develop pain that you believe comes from a pinched nerve is to schedule an appointment with your doctor. If diagnosed in time, you may be able to find pain relief with several weeks or months of conservative treatment. Take a moment to read below about what causes a pinched nerve and some warning signs you should be aware of to know whether or not you should see a doctor.
If you have experienced any type of nerve compression in the past, you can attest to the fact that it is extremely debilitating. More often than not, it will come on after a prolonged period of low level back pain, which then gradually worsens into a full blown nerve compression.
What exactly are nerves?
Your nerves are the electrical wiring of your body. They carry signals from your brain, via the spinal cord, to your entire body.
Nerve roots, are where the nerves shoot off from the spinal cord, between the vertebrae and to the rest of the body.
A pinched or compressed nerve is therefore one that has some type of pressure placed on it. This usually happens at the nerve root. It can occur for a number of reasons, but predominately:
- Disc bulges pressing on it
- Bony/arthritic compression
When this nerve is compressed, a few different things can happen:
- You may have altered sensation such as pins and needles, burning or numbness
- You may have pain
- You may have weakness in the particular muscle that the nerve controls
So how do you know if you have a pinched nerve?
As mentioned above, generally lower back pain and stiffness precedes a pinch nerve. Not always, but often. When you have a pinched or compressed nerve, you will normally have pain with movement, potentially some altered sensation such as pins and needles or numbness and sometimes a ‘burning’ sensation. Even though your symptoms may be a long way from the source of your back, such as your foot or lower leg, it is only because the nerve that is compressed controls this particular area of your body.
So although you may have a very sore back, referred symptoms down your leg is a completely normal reaction to nerve compression. There is nothing wrong with that area of your body, rather the nerve itself is causing altered signals to go to your brain.
I am sure you have heard of ‘sciatica’ before. Sciatica is an example of nerve compression of one of the largest nerves in the lower body. It extends from nerve roots at the base of your back, which is a highly vulnerable area. When this nerve is compressed it causes symptoms down the leg, particularly through the hamstring and calf muscle.
What are the long term consequences of a pinched nerve?
It is important to realise that short term compression (less than 3 – 4 weeks) is not a serious problem. Generally with appropriate physiotherapy, the condition will resolve and you will be able to carry on as per pre injury. However, if nerve compression lasts longer than 6 weeks, then it can cause muscular weakness. If the nerve is compressed for long enough, then the signals flowing down to the body can be impaired so significantly, that the muscle stops working or the area of skin becomes numb.
How do I stop getting a pinched nerve?
First and foremost, take care of your back. A few simple tips include:
- Stay mobile and flexible
- Lift things up by bending your knees
- Stay strong – lift weights or participate in regular exercise
- See a physiotherapist to maintain a healthy spine
What do I do if I have a pinched nerve?
Most pinched nerve resolve within 4 – 6 weeks with appropriate physiotherapy. This includes gentle lower back mobilization to loosen up the lower back joints, some gentle massage and a home program of stretches.
Avoiding aggravating factors such as prolonged sitting, or sitting in a lounge, as well as lifting heavy objects is key to ensure a quick recovery.
Remember that every condition is different, so if you need help then feel free to reach out to us at the clinic so we can get you on the way to resolving your condition – the longer you wait, the longer it takes to get better!