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 the individual vertebrae. When problems affect these nerve roots, the condition is called radiculopathy.
One cause of radiculopathy is a herniated disk. Soft disks act as cushions between your vertebrae. On occasion, these disks slip out of place or become damaged and press on nerves. This is sometimes called a pinched nerve or a slipped disk. This problem is most likely to occur in your lower back, but it can also affect your neck.
As people age, it's common to have changes in the disks and vertebrae that could affect the nerves. But many people ages 50 and older have damaged disks and pinched nerves but don't have symptoms.
Pressure on a nerve root in your lower back is called lumbar radiculopathy. When it occurs in your neck, it's called cervical radiculopathy.
Symptoms of lumbar radiculopathy 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 cervical radiculopathy 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
Possible tests to diagnose this problem are:
Imaging tests, such as an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI scan, enable your doctor to better see the structures in your neck or back and may include injecting 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.
In many cases, these simple steps may treat your symptoms:
Medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, opioid medicines for more severe pain, and muscle relaxants
Losing weight, if needed, with diet and exercise
For cervical radiculopathy, 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 the 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.
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.
Your doctor may be able to suggest steps most helpful in preventing or treating radiculopathy on your own, given your individual needs.