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What is radiculopathy?

Your spine is made of many bones called vertebrae. Your spinal cord runs downward through a canal in the center of these bones. Nerve roots branch off the cord and go between each vertebrae. When problems affect these nerve roots, the condition is called radiculopathy. This is commonly called a pinched nerve.

This problem is most likely to occur in your lower back (lumbar radiculopathy), but it can also affect your neck (cervical radiculopathy) or other parts of your spinal cord.


What causes radiculopathy?

One cause of radiculopathy is a herniated disk. Soft disks act as cushions between your vertebrae. Sometimes, these disks slip out of place or become damaged and press on nerves. This is commonly called a slipped disk.


As people age, it's common for the disks to become shorter and the vertebrae to get closer together. Bone growths called spurs could also press on the nerve roots. But, many people ages 50 and older have damaged disks and pinched nerves but don't have symptoms.

What are the symptoms of radiculopathy?

Symptoms of a pinched nerve in the lower back include:

  • A sharp pain in the back that may travel all the way to your foot—pain may become worse with certain activities like sitting or coughing
  • Numbness of the skin in areas of the leg or foot
  • Weakness in the leg

Symptoms of pinched nerve in the neck include:

  • A sharp pain in the arm
  • Pain in the shoulder
  • A feeling of numbness or pins and needles in the arm
  • Weakness of the arm
  • Worsening pain when you move your neck or turn your head

How is radiculopathy diagnosed?

Possible tests to diagnose this problem are:

  • Imaging tests, such as an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI scan. These tests let your doctor see the structures in your neck or back. Your doctor may also inject a contrast material (a dye) into your spinal canal to help show the problem area.
  • The doctor may ask you to lie on your back and lift your leg while holding it straight or perform other movements. If you have pain with certain movements it may help with the diagnosis.
  • Your doctor may do tests that check how well your nerves and muscles are working.

How is radiculopathy treated?

In many cases, these simple steps may treat your symptoms:

  • Medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), narcotic medicines for more severe pain, and muscle relaxants
  • Losing weight, if needed, with diet and exercise
  • Physical therapy
  • For a pinched nerve in the neck, wearing a soft collar around your neck for short amounts of time

Some people need more advanced treatments. Your doctor might suggest injections of steroid medication in the area where a disk is herniated. Some people might benefit from surgery. During a surgical procedure called a discectomy, the surgeon removes all or part of the disk that is pressing on a nerve root. Along with this procedure, the surgeon may need to remove parts of some vertebrae or fuse vertebrae together.


Can radiculopathy be prevented?

Staying physically fit may reduce your risk of radiculopathy. Using good posture at work and in your leisure time, such as lifting heavy objects properly, may also help prevent this condition. If you sit at work for long periods, consider getting up and walking around regularly.

Living with radiculopathy

Medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids or stronger narcotic medicines help reduce nerve swelling and relieve pain. Corticosteroids may also be given as an injection, which will also reduce inflammation and pain allowing the nerve to heal.

Losing weight, if needed will help relieve pressure on the joints. Physical therapy may use specialized exercises to strengthen and stretch the neck muscles. A physical therapist may suggest wearing a soft collar or using traction to help the neck muscles rest and heal. These measures also relieve pressure on the nerve.

Your health care provider may be able to suggest self-care steps to help prevent or treat radiculopathy.

When should I call my health care provider?

Call your health care provider right away or go to the emergency room if you have sudden onset of numbness, weakness, or paralysis of an arm or leg that does not go away, or if you lose bladder or bowel control. These could be signs of a serious condition that needs treatment right away.

Key points

  • Radiculopathy is caused by a disc or bone in the spine that presses on a nerve root coming out of the spinal cord. It is commonly called a pinched nerve.
  • Symptoms can include pain, numbness, or weakness in an arm or leg.
  • Radiculopathy can often be helped with medicines, physical therapy, weight loss, and/or rest, although more involved treatments might be needed in some cases.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.