Shooting Back or Neck Pain: Radiculopathy and Its Causes

Doctor Showing Spine Model where Most Common Radiculopathy Pain Originates

Spinal radiculopathy is a nerve root disorder that can cause sharp, shooting pain emanating from the spine then traveling down an extremity, shoulder or scapula. Fortunately, radiculopathy can often be treated with lifestyle changes and pain management. Learn more about radiculopathy symptoms and treatment options from Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics, serving patients throughout northern New Jersey.

What Is Radiculopathy?

Radiculopathy starts as an acute condition and can become chronic.  It is caused by one or more pinched nerve roots at the level they exit the spine. If not resolved, it can lead to permanent damage and even loss of extremity function.  Radiculopathy can affect patients of any age. However, radiculopathy is most common in patients over the age of 50 either because of an inciting injury or wear and tear on the spinal column. Radiculopathy may be caused by acute trauma, such as a car accident or sports injury, or is simply the result of arthritis and disc degeneration, both of which are a natural part of the aging process.

Symptoms can vary based on the location of the compressed nerve, but may include:

  • Weakness in the arms, legs, hands, or feet
  • Numbness, tingling, or “pins and needles” sensation
  • Decreased motor skills
  • Loss of functional use of the extremity
  • Loss of feeling in the arm(s) or leg(s)
  • Lower back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Shoulder pain

Radiculopathy symptoms often are unilateral, meaning they affect only one side of the body. Some patients experience a worsening of symptoms with prolonged walking or sitting.

Regional Radiculopathy

When a patient has radiculopathy, the symptoms are associated with the specific region of the spine where the structural problem exists. Radicular symptoms can be grouped based on the levels of the spine they emanate from as follows:

  • Cervical radiculopathy:A compressed nerve in the neck a.k.a. cervical spine can cause a specific set of radiculopathy symptoms. Cervical radiculopathy often is marked by shoulder and neck pain, paresthesia, muscle weakness in the arms or hands, and if chronic, can lead to atrophy of the muscles.
  • Thoracic radiculopathy:This less common region of radiculopathy causes pain or paresthesia in the thoracic region of the back which wraps around the rib cage.
  • Lumbar radiculopathy:This is the most common location that radiculopathy originates from and travels down various portions of the buttock or leg depending on the level of the lumbar spine in which the nerves are pinched.  The lower back radiculopathy that affects the buttock and is limited to the posterior portion of the thigh leg is called sciatica.

Conditions That Can Cause Radiculopathy

Often, degenerative conditions that lead to wear and tear on the spine are the cause of radiculopathy. These conditions include:

  • Bone spurs: Joint damage can cause bony overgrowths that compress spinal nerves.
  • Herniated disc: A slipped, torn, or ruptured intervertebraldisc in the spine can cause pressure on the surrounding nerves.
  • Spinal stenosis: Narrowing of the spinal canal caused by an injury or arthritis, known as spinal stenosis, is common among older adults. It places pressure on both the nerve roots and the spinal cord itself causing bilateral symptoms of radiculopathy.

Spinal tumors or cysts can also lead to radiculopathy because as they grow pressure is placed on the surrounding nerves.

How Is Radiculopathy Diagnosed?

To confirm a diagnosis of radiculopathy, a doctor will review the patient’s complete medical history and symptoms. A physical examination will be performed to test muscle strength, weakness, reflexes, loss of sensation or feeling and dexterity. The doctor also may order imaging tests, such as:

  • X-ray
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Electromyography
  • Nerve conduction study

These tests can help pinpoint the root cause of nerve pain.

Treating Radiculopathy

Radiculopathy often can be managed with nonsurgical treatment methods. These conservative care options include:

  • Medication: Over the counter or prescription medications can reduce inflammation and treat mild or moderate nerve pain.
  • Physical therapy: A course of structured physical therapy can help strengthen muscles around the spine, improve an individual’s range of motion, and add stability to the spine.
  • Transforaminal injection treatment: Corticosteroid injections near the nerve root to confirm the location of the pinched nerve root and reduce inflammation that will mitigate radiculopathy symptoms.
  • Epidural Steroid injections: If bilateral radiculopathy or multiple levels of radiculopathy exist.

These treatments may be used individually or in combination with one another to address a patient’s symptoms. If conservative back or neck pain treatment does not noticeably reduce a patient’s radiculopathy pain, they may be a candidate for surgical interventions such as a laminectomy or discectomy.

Find Outstanding Back and Neck Pain Treatment at CNSO

At Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics (CNSO), the board-certified physicians specialize in diagnosing conditions such as radiculopathy. The CNSO doctors develop comprehensive plans for neck or back pain treatment. With a collaborative medical staff of neurosurgeons, orthopedic spine surgeons, interventional pain management physicians, physiatrists, and certified physical therapists, each patient receives personalized care. CNSO serves patients throughout Northern New Jersey with multiple convenient locations. For more information, contact CNSO today.

Centers for Neurosurgery Spine & Orthopedics