If you have been experiencing muscle weakness and pain due to a pinched nerve, then you are probably concerned if it will affect your whole body. Can a pinched nerve cause muscle weakness and affect the ability to move in general?
This post will discuss the possible symptoms of cervical radiculopathy and how it can affect you. It will also detail other conditions that can present as cervical radiculopathy.
The General Effect Of A Pinched Nerve On The Body
Cervical radiculopathy is a condition caused by compression of a cervical nerve root, which can result in pain and sensorimotor deficits. Nerve roots are mixed nerves which are responsible for sensory and motor function.
There are eight cervical nerve roots that branch off from the spinal cord, labeled from C1-C8. Each cervical nerve root supplies a particular region of skin, called a dermatome,and innervates certain groups of muscles, called a myotome.
When the cervical nerve root is compressed, the sensory supply to the dermatome in the upper limb can be altered. This can lead to pain, decreased sensation, the feeling of pins and needles, and even numbness. This can also coincide with muscle weakness, and a decreased reflex response.
Does Cervical Radiculopathy Affect The Entire Spine?
Cervical radiculopathy is usually limited to the distribution of the affected nerve. However, in cases where the compression is caused by a tumor or spinal trauma, then it is possible for the nerve root on the opposite side to also become involved, leading to symptoms in the contralateral limb as well.
If the cervical radiculopathy begins to affect the neck and upper limb, it can become exceedingly difficult to function and perform simple activities of daily living like dressing and driving. The pain can also affect your general well-being and cause you to alter the way you do things.
Additionally, the C3-C5 nerves supply the diaphragm, which assists in breathing. If one of these nerve roots is affected, it can also affect the movement of the diaphragm, impacting breathing and overall health.
Therefore, the effect of cervical radiculopathy on the body depends on the nerve root that is compressed and the severity of the compression.
Body Parts Affected By Cervical Radiculopathy
Cervical radiculopathy can affect the head, neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, hands, and fingers because the cervical nerve roots supply these body parts. It can alter the sensation, motor control, and fine motor movement in these areas, as listed below:
Head And Neck
The cervical nerves C1, C2, and C3 are responsible for the movement of the head and neck. They control the forward, backward, and side-to-side neck movements.
Additionally, the C2 nerve is responsible for sensation in the upper head and C3 provides sensation to the side of the face and back of the head. If the nerves from C1-C3 are compressed, then turning the head from side to side can be difficult. You may also not be able to feel sensations on your face.
The C4 nerve controls the upward movement of the shoulder. This is also one of the nerves that controls your diaphragm and assists with breathing. Additionally, C4 provides sensation for a portion of the neck, shoulders, and upper arms. The C5 nerve also helps to control the movement of the shoulders as well.
Additionally, the C5 nerve is responsible for elbow flexion and provides sensation to the upper part of your upper arm and down to the elbow. The C7 nerve controls the movement of the triceps, and also provides sensation from the back of the arm to the middle finger.
Both the C6 and C7 nerves are responsible for the wrist extensor muscles. C6 is responsible for wrist flexor muscles along with C8. The median nerve, which has contributions from C5 to T1 (thoracic nerve), provides sensation to the palmar side of the thumb and fingers (but not the little finger).
Hands And Fingers
In the hand, the C6 nerve provides sensation to the thumb and hand. Additionally, C8 controls the fine movements of the hands and provides sensation to the ulnar side of the hand and forearm, including the little finger.
Symptoms Of Cervical Radiculopathy
Here are a few common symptoms that you may experience with cervical radiculopathy:
Numbness And Decreased Sensation
Numbness and decreased sensation can be symptoms of a pinched nerve. A change in sensation or a loss of sensation occurs in areas where the nerve provides sensory supply. This usually happens gradually as the pinched nerves worsens.
Limbs “Falling Asleep”
The sensation of the limbs “falling asleep” or becoming numb occurs when the sensory fibers in the nerve are compressed for a long time. In addition to the numbness, this can lead to paresthesia and an inability to move the arm.
Impaired Physical Function
A pinched nerve can cause weakness. Since the nerve roots are “mixed” nerves that contain both sensory and motor functions, if the nerves are compressed you may experience a range of motor issues which include impaired physical function and loss of strength in the upper limb.
This may manifest as a loss of sensation to heat, touch, cold, vibration, and a decrease in strength and range of motion.
Other Possible Conditions That Can Cause Motor Issues
Motor issues and muscle weakness are not always caused by cervical radiculopathy. Other conditions can cause symptoms similar to those seen with cervical radiculopathy. Some of them are listed below:
- Muscle Spasms: Muscle spasms or cramps occur due to sudden involuntary contractions of the muscles. They are commonly accompanied by pain, an inability to flex the muscle, and can involve single or multiple muscle groups that are not based on the distribution of the nerve, which differs from cervical radiculopathy.
- Peripheral Neuropathy: Peripheral neuropathies occur due to vitamin deficiencies, vascular conditions, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. In these conditions, the peripheral nerves (nerves outside your brain and spinal cord) are affected and their response to nerve impulses is reduced.
As a result, the nerve cells gradually degenerate leading to a gradual loss of nerve impulses. It differs from cervical radiculopathy as neuropathy affects the peripheral nerves in a widespread distribution.
- Traumatic Nerve Injuries: Accidents and trauma can damage multiple tissues simultaneously. For example, an accident involving the upper back can damage the nerves, muscles, ligaments, and blood vessels leading to loss of movement, loss of strength, and change in reflexes in the upper limb.
These nerves may be crushed or compressed due to trauma which then leads to cervical radiculopathy.
- Multiple Sclerosis: Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the myelin sheath that encases the nerves. The myelin sheath helps conduct impulses from one nerve to another.
Without this sheath, nerve conduction is affected, and the muscles do not receive information to perform an action. This may appear in just one limb at first, but gradually becomes more generalized based on the number of nerves affected.
As a result, motor movement, sensation, and muscle strength is altered, leading to radiculopathy symptoms. The difference is these symptoms are not restricted to one cervical nerve root but are widespread throughout the body.
- Fibromyalgia: Fibromyalgia is a condition characterized by generalized pain in the muscles, which is triggered or worsened by movement and may be accompanied by paresthesia. While the cause is unknown, the condition is more commonly experienced by women than men.
These symptoms are remarkably similar to cervical radiculopathy, however, unlike cervical radiculopathy, muscles in both lower and upper limbs are affected.
The Effect Of A Pinched Nerve On Overall Well-Being
Physical pain caused by pinched nerves can influence mental and emotional health. Studies have shown that people with neck pain tend to have depression and anxiety, and this can lead to other comorbidities (1).
Additionally, people often experience sleep disturbances and emotional upheaval due to disability and pain. Cervical radiculopathy can also affect work and activities of daily living, further worsening well-being.
Additionally, since cervical radiculopathy can become a chronic condition with persistent pain, it can be difficult for a person to function normally, which can further contribute to anxiety and depression.
Diagnosing A Pinched Nerve
Pinched nerves are diagnosed through a physical exam and ancillary studies. A doctor can request imaging and other tests to visually detect what is pinching the nerve, helping to determine the appropriate course of treatment. Here are some diagnostic tests for pinched nerves:
- Physical Examination: The first thing doctors do is take a detailed history and perform a thorough physical examination. Cervical radiculopathy is usually unilateral, so a physical examination can be used to assess the sensory, motor, and reflexes of the affected versus unaffected side.
Additionally, cervical radiculopathy commonly causes a reduction in strength on the affected side, which can be assessed in the physical exam.
- Special Tests: A doctor may use special tests to rule in or rule out specific causes of any symptoms. For example, Spurling’s test can be used to diagnose cervical radiculopathy.
In the test, the head is extended and rotated. If there is pain that radiates down the arm on the same side of the rotation, the test is positive.
- Blood Tests: Blood tests are not done to confirm cervical radiculopathy, but rather to rule out other probable causes of the pain and symptoms in the affected limb. This may include pathology tests for vitamin B12.
- Imaging: An X-ray of the cervical spine may be ordered by your doctor to check the cervical spine, which can help to visualize the joints in the neck. In contrast, computed tomography (CT) may be used to assess traumatic injuries which cause radicular symptoms.
However, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is the method of choice for diagnosing radiculopathies because it allows doctors to see disc herniations and nerve compressions.
- Electromyography (EMG): Electromyography is used to confirm if the nerve is affected by studying the nerve-to-muscle signal transmission.
- Nerve Conduction Studies: Nerve conduction tests or nerve conduction velocity tests measure the speed at which a nerve transmits impulses. This is helpful to identify the extent to which a nerve is affected by the compression.
Treatment Options For A Pinched Nerve
There are several treatment options for pinched nerves. First, you can start with conservative measures at home. If symptoms persist, physical therapy is the next step and can relieve the symptoms if there is compression due to muscle, bone, and ligaments.
If this does not help, medical interventions, non-surgical biologic therapy, and finally surgery are other treatment options for cervical radiculopathy. These treatment options are listed in detail below:
Conservative management at home is a good first step for cervical radiculopathy, especially if you are experiencing a pinched nerve for the first time. Here are some effective remedies to try at home:
- Over-The-Counter Medications: If a pinched nerve is causing your pain, try an over-the-counter pain killer like acetaminophen and ibuprofen. These will also help to simultaneously reduce inflammation and decrease pain.
- Ice/Heat Compresses: Cold and heat therapy can alter the blood supply to the area where there is pain. Ice therapy can restrict the blood supply temporarily and reduce pain.
Conversely, heat therapy can increase the blood supply and carry inflammatory substances that will heal the injury. You can alternate between the two to see which provides you with better pain relief.
- Rest: Strain and overstretching of the muscles and joints can also pinch the nerves. By resting, you give the injured tissue time to heal and recover. During rest, the irritated nerve root may also heal as the inflammation subsides over time.
- Activity Modification: By modifying aggravating activities, the symptoms of a pinched nerve may subside.
For example, if overhead motion worsens the pain, then avoiding this movement can help to both relieve your symptoms and give the nerve responsible for that action time to heal. This is evident in athletes where certain activities may trigger cervical radiculopathy or worsen it.
Physical therapy can also relieve the symptoms of a pinched nerve. For example, gentle massages, stretches, and exercises can stretch the muscles and relieve the pressure on the pinched nerve. You can find out more about how this works here.
Various medical interventions can be used to treat cervical radiculopathy. For example, steroid injections, cervical traction, tricyclic antidepressants, gabapentin, and even acupuncture have been shown to successfully relieve the symptoms of cervical radiculopathy (2) (3).
In addition, there are non-surgical options like platelet rich plasma (PRP) that can help relieve the symptoms of cervical radiculopathy.
Multiple high-level studies demonstrate that PRP will beat corticosteroids epidurals in both pain relief as well as duration of relief (months compared to years!) (4-6)
We have also published our data on well over 400 patients with 2 year follow up showing excellent results with using PRP epidurals to help radiculopathy.
There are several non-surgical options for cervical radiculopathy. This includes facet joint injections and PRP. The type of treatment depends entirely on what is causing your symptoms.
These are not always offered by all orthopedics as they require a dedicated lab. You can find details about them here.
Surgical procedures for cervical radiculopathy are a last resort for those who do not benefit from medical and non-surgical therapy. You can find out more details about the various surgical options here.
Do Not Let A Pinched Nerve Get In Your Way
Pinched nerves are not permanent. You can recover from cervical radiculopathy with the right treatment. However, it is important to find out what is causing the condition in order to treat it appropriately.
At Centeno-Schultz Clinic (CSC), our board-certified doctors are keen on using regenerative medicine to heal the nerves and allow them to recover. This is not offered by many practices. So before you resort to surgery, consider non-surgical therapies and talk to our doctors about this non-invasive treatment.
Recovery from cervical radiculopathy is possible with the right treatment plan. Read more on cervical radiculopathy for insight into the condition.
- Fushui Liu, Ting Fang, Fanyuan Zhou, Meimei Zhao, Mei Chen, Jianyu You, Yuli Jin, Jinmei Xie, Zhongyong Liu, “Association of Depression/Anxiety Symptoms with Neck Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Literature in China”, Pain Research and Management, vol. 2018, Article ID 3259431, 9 pages, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/3259431
- Backonja M, Glanzman RL. Gabapentin dosing for neuropathic pain: evidence from randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials. Clin Ther. 2003;25(1):81-104. doi:10.1016/s0149-2918(03)90011-7
- Sindrup SH, Otto M, Finnerup NB, Jensen TS. Antidepressants in the treatment of neuropathic pain. Basic Clin Pharmacol Toxicol. 2005;96(6):399-409. doi:10.1111/j.1742-7843.2005.pto_96696601.x
- Ruiz-Lopez R, Tsai YC. A Randomized Double-Blind Controlled Pilot Study Comparing Leucocyte-Rich Platelet-Rich Plasma and Corticosteroid in Caudal Epidural Injection for Complex Chronic Degenerative Spinal Pain. Pain Pract. 2020 Jul;20(6):639-646. doi: 10.1111/papr.12893. Epub 2020 May 6. PMID: 32255266. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32255266/
- Saraf A, Hussain A, Sandhu AS, Bishnoi S, Arora V. Transforaminal Injections of Platelet-Rich Plasma Compared with Steroid in Lumbar radiculopathy: A Prospective, Double-Blind Randomized Study. Indian J Orthop. 2023 May 5;57(7):1126-1133. doi: 10.1007/s43465-023-00898-3. PMID: 37384009; PMCID: PMC10293530.
- Singh GK, Talawar P, Kumar A, Sharma RS, Purohit G, Bhandari B. Effect of autologous platelet-rich plasma (PRP) on low back pain in patients with prolapsed intervertebral disc: A randomised controlled trial. Indian J Anaesth. 2023 Mar;67(3):277-282. doi: 10.4103/ija.ija_821_22. Epub 2023 Mar 16. PMID: 37250523; PMCID: PMC10220156.
- Centeno C, Markle J, Dodson E, Stemper I, Hyzy M, Williams C, Freeman M. The use of lumbar epidural injection of platelet lysate for treatment of radicular pain. J Exp Orthop. 2017 Nov 25;4(1):38. doi: 10.1186/s40634-017-0113-5. PMID: 29177632; PMCID: PMC5701904.