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What Is a Pinched Nerve?

You may not realize that some common health problems are the result of a pinched nerve. For example, carpal tunnel syndrome may happen when muscles and tendons in the wrist swell from overuse, pinching the median nerve in the wrist. Herniated disks in the back can cause pain and disability because of pinched nerves. If a pinched nerve is left untreated, permanent damage to the area beyond the pinched nerve can happen.

What does it feel like?

A system of nerves spreads throughout the body, so a pinched nerve can happen anywhere along the course of the nervous system. For instance, nerves run from the shoulders to the hands, down the legs, from the pelvis to the knee, and from the buttocks down each leg. Symptoms of a pinched nerve may not occur at the actual location where the nerve is compressed, but rather in an area some distance away. A burning feeling in your arm actually may be caused by a pinched nerve in the neck. Tingling toes may signify a pinched nerve somewhere in the back.

You may not be able to measure the severity of the problem by the severity of your symptoms. Sometimes a symptom may go away, so it seems like the problem is gone. It may, however, mean that the nerve has actually become compressed completely, so the nerve can't function at all. Lack of nerve function may lead to loss of muscle function.

What to do

If you have symptoms of pain, burning, tingling, or numbness, or if you are experiencing muscle weakness, call your health care provider.

Self-care measures for a pinched nerve may include:

  • Applying ice to the affected area

  • Using a splint to immobilize the wrist if you have carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms

  • Taking anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen or aspirin

Check with your health care provider to make sure it's OK for you to take an anti-inflammatory medication.


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