Dr. Martin talks about what causes a pinched nerve, how long it takes for a pinched nerve to go away, and how to relieve the pain.
A common cause of back and neck pain in adults is a pinched nerve. A nerve can be pinched—or “compressed”—anywhere along the length of the spine, which means one person may have horrible neck or shoulder pain from a pinched nerve while another will experience pain in the lower back, along the side of the leg or even as numbness in the toes.
Because pinched nerves are so common, many people don’t recognize how serious they can be. But side effects can cause not only debilitating pain, but also permanent damage to muscles and organs.
So what causes a pinched nerve anyway and how do you get rid of it?
Causes of a pinched nerve
All the nerves in our body extend from the base of the brain and enter the spinal cord. Then, they continue down the spinal cord until they exit to communicate messages from the brain to select organs and muscles. If a bone in our spine isn’t aligned correctly, it puts pressure on the nerve at that exit point. Left untreated, the pressure on the nerve will continue to compress and weaken the nerve, causing numbness. This is known as “neuropathy,” “compression neuropathy” or even “nerve compression syndrome.”
Over time, nerve compression and neuropathy can cause permanent damage, not only to the nerve itself, but also to the muscles and organs the nerve supplies with signals from the brain.
I’ve seen hundreds of patients seek medical help for the secondary health problems caused by pinched nerves, when what was needed was to locate where the nerve was being pinched and remove that pressure.
The truth is, symptoms of a pinched nerve can be incredibly diverse. Often, there’s no pain at the site of where the nerve is being pinched. For example, if a nerve is pinched in the neck, a person may have cold fingers. They may also feel tingling in their forearm, wrist, palm or fingertips. An example of this is carpel tunnel, which is often the result of a pinched median nerve in the neck.
The median nerve runs from the base of the neck, and down the arm to the wrist. At the wrist, it goes through the “carpel tunnel.” If the median nerve is compressed in the neck, it restricts blood flow. This inflames the nerve. That means its diameter is wider than it should be, which causes problems as it passes through the carpel tunnel. This is one reason why chiropractic care has proven to be so helpful to those suffering from carpel tunnel. Once the pressure is removed from median nerve in the neck, the inflammation goes away and the irritation in the wrist dissipates.
Because the symptoms of pinched nerves are so varied, a person often delays treatment. Instead, they respond to the symptoms (pain, tingling, muscle weakness) with external treatment, such as yoga, massage, or an increase in their physical activity. That does nothing to address the real problem and may even cause more damage.
So what should someone do if they experience pain, tingling, and muscle weakness? Swift diagnosis is important to avoid permanent damage.
How to treat a pinched nerve
A pinched nerve is always due to pressure on the nerve. And pressure on the nerve is always the result of misalignment in the spine. Chiropractors call this a subluxation. Now, to be clear, it’s not that the spine itself is always pressing on the nerve—though sometimes that does happen. No, a misalignment of the vertebrae could compress one side of the disk (the cushion between the bones), and make it bulge out. That bulging disk can press into the nerve, pinching it to the point of causing excruciating pain.
But regardless of whether the bone itself or the disk is compressing the nerve, the solution is the same: you have to remove the pressure on the nerve so it can flow freely again. It’s sort of like a garden hose: water flows through unobstructed until something pinches or compresses the hose. There’s only one way to fix that: find the point where the flow is being cut off, release where it’s being pinched, and restore the flow.
But how do you remove the pressure from a nerve?
You have to fix the misalignment in the spine. Once you align the spine, the vertebrae goes back to it’s natural position, pressure from the nerve is removed and flow is restored. The nerves begin “feeding” the muscles and organs again. Pain subsides and secondary problems can heal.
How long does a pinched nerve take to heal?
The first thing that happens as a nerve begins to heal is that it’s able to reopen the communication between the brain and the rest of the body. In an ideal world, a chiropractor would be able to “pop” a misaligned vertebrae back into place. The newly released nerve would bounce back—and the pain and health problems would go away.
But that’s not always how the body works. Just as it takes months or even years to move teeth, moving the spine to release pressure from the nerve takes time. Caught early, a nerve may recover after only a few adjustments to the spine. Other times, it takes longer.
People often wait too long to seek chiropractic help and permanent nerve damage occurs. I can’t tell you how unfortunate this is. I know chiropractic care can help but it’s often seen as a “last resort” for people suffering from pinched nerves. I’ve helped hundreds of patients get relief from the pain and side effects of pinched nerves.
For whatever reason, people will wait—treating a pinched nerve with ice, heat, exercise, therapy and drugs. Often the pain becomes so intense, they opt for surgery. I get it. When you’re in agony, you just want it to stop. But a good chiropractor is the very best treatment for a pinched nerve. It’s natural and non-invasive. A good chiropractic can locate the exact point where the nerve is being pinched and release the nerve. And the sooner you get to the chiropractor, the faster you can get relief and the more likely you are to avoid permanent nerve damage.
Will a pinched nerve just go away?
Some medical professionals will suggest the body will heal itself over time. This isn’t possible. What is possible is that the vertebrae will shift again, just as it did when it originally became misaligned. Vertebrae can shift from any number of things: twisting or turning incorrectly, bending or lifting without supporting the back, and trauma from an accident are just a few ways vertebrae can shift. It’s possible that a shift in the vertebrae could release pressure from the pinched nerve. But to make the jump that the shift in the vertebrae has correctly re-aligned the spine is to ignore the rules of human biology. That simply doesn’t happen.
The pain may go away. And a person (and even the medical professional) could conclude that the body has healed itself. And, in a way, they would be right. The body is a self-healing, self-regulating machine. The brain’s main job is to make sure we survive and thrive, and so it will constantly try to fix problems so the body “heals.” The trouble is, if it can’t heal it will adapt. And that’s what happens when the body “heals itself” from a pinched nerve.
It doesn’t actually heal. It adapts so that you can continue to survive and thrive as much as possible. But it “healed” incorrectly and the problem will reoccur. People often describe the “recovered” area as their “weak spot.” And that is true. The area is vulnerable to re-injury because it never healed correctly in the first place. A good chiropractor will take an x-ray of the area, locate where the spine is misaligned, and provide a treatment plan so the body heals correctly.
But is there any relief for the pain while you’re under chiropractic care?
How to relieve the pain of a pinched nerve
While nothing other than removing the pressure from the nerve will heal a pinched nerve, it’s possible to find temporary relief from the pain. Again, temporary relief does not fix the problem. The only treatment to fix a pinched nerve it to locate where the nerve is being compressed and remove the interference.
However, depending on the severity of the pinched nerve, some patients have found relief through rest and ice. Exercise can irritate the nerve, and heat will bring more blood to an already inflamed area. This might feel good immediately, but it’s the opposite of what the body needs.
Of course pain medication and surgery can remove the pain of a pinched nerve, but the side effects are such that I almost never recommend either—although in severe cases it may be the only option.
Real treatment of a pinched nerve
Pinched nerves can be debilitating. They can cause permanent damage and neuropathy. The best corrective care for a pinched nerve is specific and consistent chiropractic adjustments like those offered here at Precision Chiropractic.
If you’re in the Southpoint area of South Durham, give Precision Chiropractic a call at 919-794-4455 or schedule a time to come in to see me. I’m a Structural Gonstead Chiropractor, and my office is conveniently located at the intersection of Hope Valley Road and 54.