A pinched nerve is not only a pain in the neck, but it can cause problems in your arm as well. Nerves in your neck power your shoulder and arm muscles and provide sensation to the skin in your upper extremities. Compression on these nerves — also known as a pinched nerve — can cause pain, tingling, numbness and weakness in your arm. Exercise is a key component of C6 pinched nerve treatment.
Anatomy of C6 Spinal Nerve
The spine is made up of small bones stacked on top of each other, called vertebrae. Between these bones lie cushions called discs. Spinal nerves come off the spinal cord and exit through holes on the right and left sides, between your vertebrae. In the neck, or cervical spine, these nerves provide sensation to the skin and power the muscles in your arms.
The cervical spine has seven vertebrae and eight spinal nerves — each named for their location. The C6 spinal nerves exit between the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae.
After exiting between your vertebrae, spinal nerves branch off into smaller nerves that each supply sensation to a particular area of skin in your arm and power a specific group of muscles. These sensory areas are called dermatomes, while the corresponding groups of muscles are called myotomes.
The C6 spinal nerve supplies sensation to the skin of your thumb and thumb-side of your forearm. It also contributes to the nerve branches that power the muscles that bend your elbow. A pinched nerve at this level can cause numbness or tingling in the C6 dermatome and weakness in the C6 myotome. In addition, reflexes at the front of your elbow and the outside of your forearm might be decreased.
Causes of a Pinched Nerve
A cervical spinal nerve can be pinched by bone spurs that grow on vertebrae — often associated with arthritis — or by a disk that has moved out of position, called a disc herniation. Different neck movements can aggravate pinched nerve pain, depending on the underlying condition.
For example, arthritis in the spine, called stenosis, often causes increased pain with moving the head up and back into extension or turning to the side. A herniated disc in the neck can put more pressure on the nerve when you bring your chin toward your chest into flexion.
For best results, see a physical therapist for an individualized C6 pinched nerve treatment program based on your underlying medical condition.
C6 Pinched Nerve Treatment
Poor posture can cause a pinched C6 nerve. If you spend a lot of time sitting at your desk, you might find your shoulders rounding and head coming forward. This closes off the holes where the cervical spinal nerves exit between vertebrae.
Postural strengthening exercises can help relieve C6 pinched nerve symptoms. Let's see a few examples.
Scapular Retraction Exercise
Scapular retraction pulls your shoulders back, helping you to sit up straight. This opens up the holes where spinal nerves emerge.
HOW TO DO IT: Sit on a firm surface with your feet on the floor. Pull your shoulder blades down and together, as if you are trying to put them in your back pockets. You should now be sitting up very straight. Squeeze your shoulder blades together for three seconds; then relax. Repeat 10 times.
Tuck Your Chin
Chin tucks help stretch tight muscles in the back of your neck and better position your vertebrae to relieve pressure on a pinched nerve.
HOW TO DO IT: Sit up straight with your shoulder blades pulled together. Look straight ahead and slowly pull your head backward, as if you're giving yourself a double chin. You should feel a stretch in the muscles in the back of your neck. Hold for three seconds and repeat 10 times.
Stand in the Corner
Rounded shoulders and a forward head can cause muscles in the front of your chest to become tight. The corner stretch helps loosen these muscles, making it easier for you to sit up straight.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand facing a corner with your feet staggered. Place your forearms on the wall with your arms raised to shoulder height. Slowly lean over your front leg until you feel a strong pull across your chest. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat three times.
Read more: How to Relieve Neck & Shoulder Tension
Set Yourself Up for Success
Your workstation setup can have a big effect on your symptoms. Proper workstation ergonomics are an important part of your C6 pinched nerve treatment.
Sit in a comfortable chair that has low back support to maintain a slight arch. If needed, place a small rolled towel behind your low back. Adjust the height of the chair so your shoulders are relaxed, elbows bent slightly more than 90 degrees and wrists straight. Keep the mouse and keyboard close — your arms should rest comfortably next to your body.
Position your computer screen directly in front of you. If it's off to one side, your neck will be rotated, which could increase pressure on a pinched nerve. Adjust the height of the monitor so your eyes are approximately 2 to 3 inches below the top edge of the monitor.
Strengthen Your Arm Muscles
Because the C6 spinal nerves split into several nerve branches that power muscles in your arm, it's important to strengthen these muscles as part of your C6 pinched nerve treatment.
The C6 spinal nerve primarily powers muscles that flex, or bend, your elbow. Strengthen these muscles with bicep curls.
HOW TO DO IT: Sit or stand up straight with a dumbbell in each hand. Rotate your arms until your palms are facing forward. Bend one elbow as far as possible; then lower back down in a controlled fashion. Repeat 10 times on each arm, working up to three sets in a row.
Be sure to move only your elbows during this exercise. If you're arching your back as you lift, the weight is too heavy. Perform strengthening exercises several times per week, with at least one day of rest between sessions.
Is This an Emergency?
- Physical Therapy: Cervical Radiculopathy: Effectiveness of Adding Traction to Physical Therapy
- Human Anatomy: The Nervous System: The Spinal Cord and Spinal Nerves
- Kaiser Permanente: Postural Exercises
- Cornell University Ergonomics Web: Ergonomic Guidelines for Arranging a Computer Workstation - 10 Steps for Users
- Oxford Medicine Online: Dermatomes and Myotomes