What is a ‘Pinched Nerve’?

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We’ve all heard of a pinched nerve before, and many of us have experienced the uncomfortable sensation of one, too. But how much do you really know about the causes, symptoms and treatments of this all too common, pesky and sometimes very painful condition?

Let’s start from the beginning. To understand what a pinched nerve is, we should know what a nerve is. Nerves are the specialized cells that make up our nervous system, carrying messages from one part of the body to another in the form of tiny electrical signals, also called nerve impulses. Basically, they allow your body to move and react when you want and need it too.

So, what is a pinched nerve? A pinched nerve occurs when too much pressure in the form of compression or constriction is applied to a nerve by surrounding tissues. The nerve gets, well, pinched. The pressure causes the nerve to become irritated and flare up, thereby disrupting the nerve’s ability to send the messages it needs.

If a nerve is pinched for only a short time, there is usually no permanent damage and once the pressure lets ups, the nerve function returns to normal. However, if the pressure continues either for a prolonged time or repetitively, chronic pain and permanent nerve damage can occur. This is a common problem for athletes because doing the same movement time and again, like perfecting a forehand shot in tennis or training for a marathon, can compound the problem.

Not just athletes get pinched nerves, anyone can get them and many people do. A pinched nerve is often associated with the neck or shoulder, but it can happen elsewhere like in the wrist, often causing carpal tunnel syndrome, or in the lower back causing sciatica.

While athletes can suffer from pinched nerves, high impact sport is not the only cause. Long held habits or specific incidents can cause the compression of nerves, things like an injury, slouching or poor posture, arthritis, obesity, and as mentioned, repetitive actions. Even pregnancy often brings on an increase in pinched nerves.

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You might be wondering how you can tell if what you are experiencing in your body is a pinched nerve or not. Well, there are a few tell-tale signs. The most common symptoms of a pinched nerve are pain, numbness, tingling (like pins and needles), stiffness, or a noticeable weakening of certain muscles, usually along the path of the nerve. It can be tricky because the damage can cause symptoms at the source, or any location further down the path from the affected nerve. A pinched nerve in the neck, for example, can cause pain or stiffness in the neck, along with symptoms like tingling or numbness down the arm. A doctor or physiotherapist can often identify which nerve is pinched by determining how a patient’s limbs are affected and where.

A temporarily pinched nerve doesn’t sound like a big deal, and it’s not, but if things get worse before they get better, there is a chance one’s mobility can be affected, as in it being difficult to turn your head from side to side or bending over at the waist.

The good news is that pinched nerves are treatable once properly diagnosed, and there are things you can do at home to help if you’ve got pinched nerve pain. For one, rest up. If a pinched nerve is a new sensation, and you’ve also been playing a more than usual amount of tennis because the weather is finally nice, a few days rest can often do the trick. If the nerve is damaged from years of trauma and you’ve been ignoring your symptoms for a long time, you may need to get your doctor to refer you to a physiotherapist. In some cases, surgery is an option too.

So that’s the skinny on pinched nerves. If you think you might be experiencing one, get it checked out because it’s pain you don’t need. And now for a fun fact—nerves are the oldest and longest cells in the body, the neuron from your spinal cord to your big toe can be up to one meter long!

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