A pinched nerve occurs when a nerve is pushed against a nearby structure, such as a bone. This causes pressure on the nerve, producing inflammation. Pinched nerves can occur anywhere in the body. When a nerve coming from the spinal cord in the neck is compressed, it is called cervical radiculopathy. This condition typically causes pain along the nerve path, extending into the neck and one arm. Tingling and numbness along the nerve path and weakness in the arm may also occur. Cervical radiculopathy is commonly due to degeneration of the spine in the neck, causing the nerve to be pinched by bones, ligaments or discs. Symptoms caused by a pinched nerve in the neck often improve with simple self-care measures, such as rest, medications and heat or cold therapy.
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The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke recommends rest as the main self-treatment for a pinched nerve. Certain activities in your everyday routine may aggravate the symptoms in your neck or arms. Symptoms are especially likely with activities that involve bending your neck backward or toward the side of the pinched nerve. Take a break from anything that worsens your symptoms to allow the nerve inflammation to subside.
Over-the-counter medications to reduce inflammation may decrease the pain in your neck and arm. Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that do not require a doctor's prescription. Use these medications only as directed to reduce the likelihood of side effects, such as stomach irritation.
Heat or Cold Therapy
Pain from a pinched nerve may improve with heat or cold therapy. Some people find heat therapy to be helpful. Heat will help relax your neck muscles, and muscle tension in the neck often contributes to the pain from a pinched nerve. A cold pack to the neck may also be beneficial, by reducing inflammation. Relief provided by heat or cold therapy is usually temporary.
Other At-Home Treatments
A few other at-home treatments may be helpful, but they should only be used under the direction of your doctor. Stretching or other physical therapy exercises may be beneficial, but follow the instructions exactly to prevent further injury. A soft neck collar may be tried. It will help limit the movement of your neck, which may improve your symptoms. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends limiting the use of a collar to a short period of time, as long-term use can weaken your neck muscles. At-home traction devices are also sometimes helpful. They may open the space around your pinched nerve, reducing the compression. Only use these devices if approved by your doctor.
Seeking Medical Attention
See your doctor to determine the cause of your symptoms. A number of serious conditions can produce similar neck and arm symptoms, including heart disease, spinal tumors and compression of the spinal cord. Seek prompt medical attention if you notice any of the following:
- chest pain
- lightheadedness or dizziness
- unexplained weight loss
- pain, numbness or tingling or weakness in both arms
- leg weakness
- bowel or bladder dysfunction
After you have been diagnosed with cervical radiculopathy, your symptoms will likely improve no matter what treatment you receive. According to a review article in the May 2016 issue of "American Family Physician," at least 80 percent of people will note improvement within 3 to 4 weeks. Return to your doctor if your symptoms are severe, getting worse or not improving after a few weeks.
Reviewed by Mary D. Daley, MD.