Up to 70% of adults will experience neck pain that interferes with their daily activities at some point in their lifetime. Sometimes described as a “pinched nerve”, cervical radiculopathy happens when the bones in the neck become damaged or the surrounding tissue becomes inflamed. It can be painful, but there are several treatments and options that can help.
Cervical Radiculopathy Symptoms
Some of the symptoms of cervical radiculopathy are pain in the neck, sharp pains in the neck and extremities, pins and needles in the hands and arms, and numbness. People have also reported feeling a loss of function and reflexes in the fingers and hands. These symptoms could develop slowly over the course of months or even years, or suddenly. They can also occur at irregular intervals, coming and going over time.
Why does Cervical Radiculopathy happen?
The cervical spine is the medical term for the 7 vertebrae that make up your neck. These bones protect your spinal cord, which carries messages from your brain to your muscles throughout your body. In between your vertebrae, or neck bones, there are small discs of fibrous tissue that protect your bones from grinding together and damaging one another. These discs can degenerate over time, or injuries to the neck can cause your nerves to become pinched or damaged. Your nerves carry messages to your muscles, and the nerves in your neck are connected to your shoulders, arms, and hands, which is why those body parts are affected.
Diagnosing Cervical Radiculopathy
A doctor can diagnose cervical radiculopathy by performing a few different tests. A physical exam is usually done to examine the muscles in the hands, arms, shoulders, and neck. They try to identify any signs of weakness, degenerating reflexes, or numbness. If those symptoms are detected, the doctor may order several different kinds of tests to determine the severity of the Radiculopathy.
An x-ray may be performed to give the doctor a view of the vertebrae and their alignment. This will show them if any of your vertebrae seem out of place, and if the disks seem damaged or not. This is an inexpensive and non-invasive way to know if your neck is injured and causing your symptoms.
A doctor may order a CT scan to find out if you have developed bone spurs in your neck, a common side effect of cervical radiculopathy. CT scans are much more detailed and give the doctor a better idea of what is going on with your vertebrae.
Another test that a doctor can use to determine the cause of cervical radiculopathy is an MRI scan. MRI’s can show your body’s inner soft tissues, so the doctor can find out if there are any tears or ruptures in your cervical discs. This can also show if there is any damage to your spinal cord or other nerves, which can cause you to lose function in other parts of the body if left unrepaired.
Cervical Radiculopathy Treatment
There are several ways to go about treating cervical radiculopathy. It depends on the severity of your symptoms and damage which treatment may work best for you.
In a few cases, the radiculopathy may go away on its own, and the inflammation is only temporary. However, in cases where this does not happen, chiropractic alignment is a viable option for relief. This involves visiting a chiropractor’s office where they will prescribe re-alignment with return visits for most likely several months, depending on how much alignment needs to take place. This can provide relief almost immediately, but it can sometimes only alleviate the problem for a short amount of time. Depending on how inflamed your tissues are, or how tense your muscles have become, it may take a while for the correct alignment to return. This can be a great option for people who do not want to take medications or who have only developed symptoms very recently.
Another natural option includes wearing something called a soft cervical collar, which is a type of neck brace. This can help ease the strain on the neck caused by the weight of the head, and help cushion the cervical bones so that the inflammation can be relieved.
In more injured patients or patients with severe pain, physical therapy may be prescribed as a way to strengthen the muscles and stretch them so that the neck can return to normal. There are many options for severe pain management that can help the patient deal with the healing process. At this level, the doctor may prescribe steroids to help. These steroids can be taken as medication, or injected directly into the surrounding tissues. This will reduce inflammation. NSAIDS, over-the-counter pain medications, can also be prescribed to help with the pain and inflammation.
Unfortunately, in rare cases cervical radiculopathy can result in partial paralysis or extreme pain. These cases can really only occur when the nerves are being compressed or severed. If this happens, doctors will usually prescribe narcotics for the pain, and will often recommend surgery. The surgery may entail removing bone spurs that may be compressing the nerve or cutting it, possibly removing a damaged disk, or fusing the spine so that no further damage can take place. There are many different surgery techniques, but research has shown that replacing the disks in the neck may be more effective than simply removing them.
Considering Treatment and Options
If you think you may be experiencing the symptoms of cervical radiculopathy, make sure to set an appointment with your doctor or visit an urgent care. If you can get treatment early on, these symptoms are much easier to treat. This can help you to stop the inflammation and development of other problems. If you are considering surgery, it is worth it to be informed and try to see if other treatments may be effective first. These treatments may take time, but there are many different ways to try to relieve your symptoms.