Strength training is very rewarding, but it's not without its potential hazards. Due to the heavy loads and pressure placed on the body's tissues during weight lifting, pinched nerves are a common issue. Know how to spot one and treat it before it puts the kibosh on your gains.
What Is a Pinched Nerve?
There are thousands of nerves all over the human body, which are part of the peripheral nervous system, or PNS, explains the North American Spine Society. Nerves are in charge of taking in information from the senses, processing that information and then triggering a reaction — for example, causing muscles to move or making you feel pain when you touch something sharp or hot, according to Informed Health.
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Nerves are very sensitive, and if they become compressed — or "pinched" — by the surrounding tissues, including muscles, bones, tendons and cartilage, it can result in pain. You may also experience tingling, numbness and weakness in the affected area.
As the Mayo Clinic explains, pinched nerves can occur in several locations in the body. A herniated disc in your lumbar spine can put pressure on a nerve root and lead to pain that travels down the back of your leg.
You may also experience a pinched nerve in your wrist and feel pain, numbness and tingling in your fingers and hands. The National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke reports that the neck is another common site for pinched nerves.
Weight Lifting and Pinched Nerves
Since pinched nerves are caused by pressure from the surrounding tissues, it's easy to see how weight lifting — especially heavy lifting — could cause a pinched nerve. The Mayo Clinic reports that sports activities are another common cause of pinched nerves. Repetitive motions and overuse may also increase the risk of developing this problem.
By nature, weight lifting is a repetitive activity. If you go into the gym each day and always perform the same moves, the stress accumulated may result in a pinched nerve — or another injury, such as a pulled muscle. If you experience a pinched nerve while squatting or a pinched nerve from a deadlift, it may be a sign you're overdoing it.
Aside from pain, numbness and tingling, muscle weakness is another symptom to watch out for. If you have any of these symptoms, a pinched nerve could be what you're experiencing. However, it's always a good idea to check in with your doctor, especially if it persists for more than several days, advises the Mayo Clinic.
Treating Pinched Nerves
The first line of treatment for a pinched nerve is rest, says the National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke. Don't go back to the gym the next day and work through the pain — you will make things worse.
Take a few days off or do activities that don't involve the part of your body where the pinched nerve has occurred. For example, if you have a pinched nerve in your neck, you may be fine riding a stationary exercise bike or doing body-weight squats and lunges. Carrying or lifting any weight at all would be ill-advised.
Taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, may temporarily relieve discomfort for mild cases of pinched nerves. For more serious cases, the doctor may recommend a splint or collar, as well as physical therapy. Although uncommon, surgery may be necessary for severe pinched nerve pain.
The Mayo Clinic provides a few useful tips for preventing pinched nerves in the future:
- Proper positioning. Moving in an awkward way that is not natural for your body could cause compression and a pinched nerve.
- Build strength and flexibility. Functional strength, as opposed to muscle mass or explosive strength, can help you move better and prevent pinched nerves. Flexibility, which many weight lifters neglect, may also help relieve the pressure that tight muscles place on the nerves.
- Limit repetitive movements. If you do the same lifts every day, it's time to mix it up. It's a good idea to switch up your program frequently anyway, as your muscles adapt to specific stressors and need new stimuli to avoid a strength plateau, explains the American Council on Exercise.
- Take rest breaks: Make sure you allow enough time between lifting sessions for proper recovery. Continuing to work out with fatigued muscles can result in a multitude of injuries, including pinched nerves.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.