What causes a pinched nerve and how to treat it

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If a “pinched nerve” sounds painful it’s because it often is.

A pinched or “compressed nerve” can cause pain, feelings of numbness, tingling or weakness in the affected area.

Pinched nerves often occur when there’s too much pressure from surrounding tissues applied to a nerve root. Because a system of nerves is present throughout the body, a pinched nerve can happen anywhere along the course of the nervous system, Stanford Health Care points out, including the neck and back.

“The cause of this kind of thing is often nothing to do with trauma,” said Lynda McClatchie, a Mississauga, Ont.-based physiotherapist and adjunct lecturer at the University of Toronto.

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“Most of the time, [a pinched nerve] starts for no obvious reason and then it can persist for inordinate amounts of time.”

McClatchie says a common reason people experience pinched nerves is because they spend much too much time with “their lower back rounded forward.”

This is because many of us sit at a desk all day, drive in a car, sit on a sofa watching TV or sleep on our sides.

In other words, pinched nerves can be caused by cumulative activities and certain postures.

“Then when somebody is washing their foot in the shower and suddenly can’t get back up, it’s [because of] all the other stuff that they’ve done in the days and weeks before,” McClatchie said.
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Of course trauma or a injury can cause a pinched nerve, too.

How to treat a pinched nerve

Some people first treat nerve pain at home with ice or an anti-inflammatory medication.

A pinched nerve may go away on its own, but if it’s causing you great discomfort, doesn’t go away in a few days or worsens, it’s a good idea to see your doctor or physiotherapist, McClatchie said.

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The tricky thing about pinched nerves is that symptoms may not occur at the actual location where the nerve is affected, but instead in another part of the body. This means you can feel pain in your toe, for example, that stems from your back, McClatchie said.

What’s more, nerve pain can move around.

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“It could be in the back then radiating right down a leg all the way to the foot, or it can skip whole locations,” she said. “I see a woman at the moment who one day has pain radiating down her left leg, and tomorrow it’s all on her right side.”

A physiotherapist can help determine where the pain is coming from, and give you proper exercises to treat it.

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“The goal is obviously lessening that irritation so that the nerves settle down and people don’t have the same pain anymore,” McClatchie said.

If your pinched nerve is related to posture, McClatchie says repositioning is key.

“You want people to be cognizant of not slouching for sustained periods of time, and getting into a different postural position,” she said.

“That may involve using a supplemental lumbar support, like something small to shove in their chair like a towel.”

Ways to prevent a pinched nerve

McClatchie says getting to the root of the pain problem will help you prevent a pinched nerve from coming back.

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If you have compressed a nerve from sitting too often, for example, you will likely experience that pain again unless you address the underlying issue.

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“Research shows that this kind of problem tends to be episodic,” McClatchie said.

“When the source of the problem isn’t addressed, it tends to become more frequent or more intense and these episodes last for longer.”

A physiotherapist can give you exercises to address the cause of your pinched nerve, which will in turn help prevent its occurrence.

One exercise McClatchie suggests is a “sloppy push-up.”

“You set yourself up like you’re doing a normal push-up — elbows up not like cobra [pose] — and you want all the work to come from your arms, and all the muscles in your back, butt and legs to stay completely relaxed,” she said.
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“You push yourself up and try to get your arms as straight as they can go, but your hips stay down as you’re facilitating that arch.”

She says people can do eight to 10 in a row daily. If this movement is hard for you, it can indicate you need to work on your back.

McClatchie also suggests people engage in physical activity as often as they can. Movement will help counteract the sitting so many of us do on a day-to-day basis.

The key, however, is to always consult a doctor if you’re in pain or unsure of what’s causing you discomfort. Every body is different and you never want to further irritate an injury.


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