Physical Therapy Exercises for Cervical Radiculopathy Unilateral Weakness

Upset woman suffering from backache at home
Cervical radiculopathy involves spinal nerves in the neck. (Image: 4774344sean/iStock/Getty Images)

Cervical radiculopathy, often called a pinched nerve, describes a condition of irritation, injury or damage to one of the nerves that exits the spine in the area of the neck. One of the more serious effects of nerve irritation is a loss of strength in the muscles that the nerve normally supplies. This is usually a one-sided, or unilateral, problem that affects the right or left arm. Exercises are a common part of treatment but should only be done after you have been evaluated by your doctor.

Before Starting Any Exercise

human lumbar vertebra magnetic resonance image(MRI)
Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, scans may help determine when exercise can start. (Image: windcatcher/iStock/Getty Images)

Because irritation of a spinal nerve is present, and a potential exists for damage to the nerve or to the muscle it supplies, this condition should be managed by your doctor. Whenever a nerve is damaged, the chance is present for the damage to progress, so the sooner you are evaluated, the better. Typically you will see your family doctor who may refer you to a neurologist or an orthopedist. Chiropractors also provide evaluation of this condition. You may need additional evaluation with an X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging or computed tomography scan to best understand your condition.

Rotation Exercises

The initial goals of this exercise are to decrease pain and increase mobility. Because movement of the muscles stimulates circulation, gentle exercise can reduce pain. Always start the exercises in a correct posture, sitting up straight with your head level. Move your head like you are looking over your shoulder to either side. Move as far as you comfortably can. Imagine you are in a room filled with water to just below your nose; turn your head, keeping your nose above the water line. If you experience an increase in pain or weakness, discontinue the exercise.

Head Tilts

Facing straight ahead and with erect posture, tilt your head like you are going to touch your ear to your shoulder. Move as far as you comfortably can. It is helpful to do this exercise in front of a mirror to make sure you don't twist as you tilt. In the mirror, you should note that your nose does not turn either toward your shoulder or away from your shoulder as you tilt. Also, avoid shrugging your shoulder upward. It may help to sit on your hand on the side you are tilting toward.

Strengthening Neck Muscles

The second goal of exercise should be to increase strength. Start with isometric exercises. Remember that radiculopathy weakness means the nerve is not stimulating the muscle properly. Weakness is not because you are not exercising enough. Starting in an erect posture, press your hand against your head and resist any movement. Move your hand to the front and back and to each side of your head so that you can resist forward, backward and side-to-side pressures. If weakness increases, discontinue this exercise and notify your doctor.

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