Have you ever had shooting pain in your neck that spreads to your shoulder and down to your arm? You are not alone. Some 40 percent of the working population cite neck pain as the reason for not showing up at work.
Because they’re practically next to each other, most neck pains are often mistaken as shoulder pain, and vice versa. But, there’s one symptom that causes pain and discomfort all the way from neck and shoulder, towards the chest, upper back and arms as well — pinched nerves.
This article explains what this type of radiating pain is, what its common, accompanying symptoms are, along with the causes, treatments and some prevention tips for this health issue.
Reasons why your neck and shoulder may hurt
There are various reasons why neck pain happens, among them being abnormalities in the bones or joints, degenerative diseases, muscle strain, trauma or injury, poor posture and a tumor.
Your shoulders, meanwhile, as a ball and socket joint, offer you a wide range of movement but remain vulnerable to injury, strains and overexertion.
These specific conditions may give rise to a painful neck and shoulder:
- Cervical osteoarthritis
- Herniated disc
- Incorrect posture and sleeping position
- Soft tissue injuries
- Rotator cuff tear
Your neck is also highly susceptible to a pinched nerve, medically known as radiculopathy.
What is a pinched nerve?
An acute injury or changes to the body, such as bone and muscle degeneration due to aging, can cause a pinched nerve in the neck and shoulder. Too much pressure from cartilage, bones, muscles and tendons to the nerves disrupts the latter’s function, resulting in pain, weakness or numbness.
It can occur in various parts of your body, for instance, in the lower spine or wrist. If a herniated disc occurs in your lower spine, it may compress a nerve root, triggering pain that extends to your lower limbs, specifically in the buttocks to the back of your leg. A pinched nerve on the wrist affects your hand and fingers, causing a condition called carpal tunnel syndrome.
What is cervical radiculopathy?
Each of our vertebra sit atop each other and are cushioned by intervertebral disks with strong fibrous outer rings and a soft, jelly-like center. The vertebrae make up our spinal column, and is further divided in three regions: the cervical spine (referring to the first seven vertebrae), the thoracic spine (consisting of the 12 middle column vertebrae) and lumbar spine (the bottom five vertebrae).
Our heads are supported by a complex connection of muscles, ligaments, vertebrae and blood vessels. Attached in our spinal column are nerves that transmit signals to and from the brain and to the other areas of the body.
Cervical radiculopathy refers to a pinched nerve affecting the neck, near the spinal cord. As a result of compression, we feel pain that starts from the neck and radiates to the shoulder and arm. Most often, the discomfort is accompanied by numbness and muscle weakness.
What are the causes of cervical radiculopathy or pinched nerves in the neck?
When a bone, swollen tissue or disk protrudes, it can put pressure or compress the nerves from the spinal column to the neck and shoulder. This nerve irritation or impingement typically leads to neck and shoulder pain that spreads down to the arm and hand.
Some common causes of a pinched nerve in the shoulder and neck include:
- Disk degeneration: With age, the disks or cushions between the cervical vertebrae wear down. This results in increased friction between the bones or against the nerves. In some instances, bone spurs, or bony growths in the vertebrae, may also cause nerve compression.
- Herniated disk: When the outer ring of the vertebrae becomes weak due to injury or aging, it can cause the inner portion to slip out and compress the nerves, causing a slipped or herniated disk.
- Injury: Overexertion or an acute injury, as are often the cases for sports players and road accident victims, may cause dislocations in the bones or an inflamed tissue that presses on the nerves.
- Tumor: An abnormal growth mass somewhere in the cervical spinal column can impinge a nerve root.
What are the signs and symptoms of a pinched nerve?
Ever wonder what having a pinched nerve feels like, especially if the nerve is located in your neck?
Nerves have both sensory and motor functions, hence they affect our mobility and sensations once issues, such as an impingement, occur.
You might have a pinched nerve if your experience any of the following:
- Neck pain and discomfort that spread to your arm, elbow and towards your fingertips.
- Pain exacerbated by side to side and other movements.
- Numbness or a tingling sensation in the affected area, or in the hands and fingers.
- Shoulder blade pain.
- Weakness in the shoulder, arm or hand.
Can a pinched nerve cause a stiff neck and headache?
Because there are a lot of nerves in the spinal cord in your neck, and a pinched nerve may result in symptoms such as stiff neck, headache and head pain with every neck movement.
Shoulder pain accompanied by muscle weakness and a tingly sensation may be included as an indicator of a pinched nerve in the neck.
What are the treatments for a pinched nerve in the shoulder and neck?
In most cases, neck and shoulder pain that radiates down the arm will resolve itself in a few days or up to two weeks without any major treatment. However, in some cases, when it is caused by the spinal column’s wear and tear, the pain may exacerbate if left untreated.
There are both surgical and non-surgical methods available for a pinched nerve.
For mild to moderate pain and discomfort, you may try any or a combination of the following at home:
- Cold therapy reduces pain and swelling. Apply a neck ice pack to the affected area for 20 minutes at a time and up to 48 hours following the onset of neck and shoulder pain. If the discomfort is focused on your shoulder and arm, try this highly recommended shoulder ice pack, as well. If you want a professional grade shoulder compression pack, you should have this shoulder ice pack. After three days, apply heat to ease tense muscles.
- Enjoy using a multi-purpose cooling cervical pillow to support your neck from further discomfort. A cervical collar may be placed on your neck to ensure you don’t move it too much and aggravate nerve pinching.
- Take, as directed, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or other pain relieving medications.
- Avoid activities that exacerbate your condition, i.e too much movement, but perform light exercises and stretching.
- Perform gentle massages on the neck and shoulder to relax muscles and improve blood circulation.
Acupuncture may help control pain in patients with acute cervical radiculopathy.
What are the other treatment options for neck and shoulder pain?
If you think you need to see your physician, please do so. To further understand your condition, your doctor will likely ask details about pain severity and its impact on your daily activities. Assessing these, your physician may prescribe oral corticosteroids to relieve inflammation, or a steroid injection to reduce swelling and inflammation. The involvement of a physical therapist may be necessary in some cases, mainly to reduce stiffness and enhance mobility.
Surgery may be recommended for neck and shoulder pains not addressed by these non-surgical treatments.
The surgical approach will depend on a person’s symptoms and what area of the spine or tissue is pressing on the nerves. These types of medical procedures would aim at removing discs that hurt and reattaching the spine together, replacing a damaged disk with an artificial one or removing portions of the spine that may be causing nerve compression.
How to prevent the recurrence of a pinched nerve in your shoulder
Future bouts of shoulder and neck pain may be prevented by doing the following:
- Maintaining proper posture: Whether when you’re sleeping or working at your desk, be conscious of your posture. Make sure your back is straight and your keyboard, chair or table is properly distanced so you don’t slouch and put too much strain on your back.
- Staying active: Regular exercise and stretching can help with flexibility and toughen your muscles at the same time, making them more resilient. Regular exercise will help you keep a proper weight and help avoid obesity, one of the vulnerabilities for pinched nerves.
Ask a physical therapist for a treatment or exercise plan suited to your needs.
When to see a doctor
Seek immediate medical care if your shoulder and neck pain is caused by a severe blow or injury, if the pain is severe or debilitating and if it persists despite non-surgical treatments.
It’s also best to ring your doctor if your pain is accompanied by fever, vomiting, light sensitivity or loss of function in the arm and hands.
How is a pinched nerve in the shoulder or neck diagnosed?
As with other consultations, the doctor will take your medical history and conduct a physical examination by looking at your neck, shoulder and other parts of your body that may be connected to or affected by both.
To further rule out other causes or to confirm suspicion, your physician may request for imaging tests such as an X-ray, a CT scan and an MRI. All of these are done to confirm if pinched nerves, tendon tears, arthritis, bursitis or fractures are causing you pain and other accompanying symptoms.
A pinched nerve in the neck is a less common yet equally disabling symptom, leading to pain, weakness, tingling and numbness in the hand and arm.
As with other symptoms, pain that’s not the result of a major injury may be treated at home with simple remedies. In most cases, the symptoms go away with these methods in a few days. If they do get worse, it’s time to book an appointment with your doctor, as it could be a sign of a serious condition that needs medical or surgical intervention.
Got some pain in your neck and shoulder? Why don’t you share the burden with us? Let’s start a conversation here.