The Role of Physical Therapy in Treating Pinched Nerves

Physical therapist stretching leg of patient lying on mat

A pinched nerve can cause sharp, radiating pain. Left untreated, it also can lead to muscle weakness in the arms, legs, hands, or feet. Fortunately, pinched nerves usually do not require invasive treatments – instead, they can be relieved through conservative interventions such as physical therapy. Learn more about treating pinched nerves with physical therapy from Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics, treating patients throughout northern New Jersey.

What Is A Pinched Nerve?

The spinal column is made up of vertebrae, a series of stacked bones that protect the spinal cord. Nerve roots branch from the central spinal cord, controlling muscle movement and different functions throughout the body. These nerve roots exit the spinal canal through small openings between each vertebra, known as the intervertebral foramen. When an injury or condition affects the amount of space in the foramen, a nerve can get compressed or pinched. A pinched nerve can cause pain, and this is known as radiculopathy.

Radiculopathy is most common in the lumbar spine, or lower back. It also can develop in the cervical spine (neck). Conditions that can cause a pinched nerve include:

  • Bone spurs of the spine: These are bony growths that can develop in response to joint damage caused by osteoarthritis (OA).
  • Slipped or herniated disc: Between each vertebra are discs that cushion the spinal column. When a disc begins to break down, its jelly-like center can slip out and compress a nerve.
  • Spinal stenosis: This is a narrowing of the spinal canal often caused by age-related changes such as OA. Stenosis also can be caused by tumors, cysts, or trauma to the spine.

Pinched Nerve Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of a pinched nerve include:

  • Sharp or burning pain
  • Muscle weakness in the arms or legs
  • Numbness, tingling, or “pins and needles” sensations
  • Pain that is worse when sitting or lying down
  • Feeling that a foot or hand has fallen asleep

A pinched nerve in the lumbar spine will cause muscle weakness and numbness in a leg or foot, while a pinched nerve in the neck usually will affect the shoulders, arms, and hands.

Radiculopathy can be diagnosed with a physical examination and imaging tests. To confirm a diagnosis and check for any nerve damage, a provider also may conduct nerve conduction tests and electromyography (EMG).

Treating Pinched Nerves With Physical Therapy

Fortunately, a pinched nerve usually can be effectively treated with conservative care. For many patients, physical therapy is an effective non-invasive intervention that can relieve radiculopathy symptoms. After a patient’s initial evaluation and diagnosis, they may be referred to a physical therapist who will create a treatment plan designed to relieve symptoms and prevent the issue from recurring. During physical therapy sessions for radiculopathy, patients can expect to learn:

  • Range-of-motion exercises
  • Strengthening exercises
  • Stretches to improve flexibility
  • Functional exercises to help them resume their job or normal activities

Physical therapists also can perform active release techniques and manual therapy to relieve chronic neck or back pain caused by a pinched nerve. Additionally, they may teach patients about proper posture or ergonomic practices to relieve pressure on the spine. Ultimately, the goal of physical therapy is to improve strength and flexibility, relieve pain and muscle tension, and maintain or improve the patient’s range of motion.

Physical Therapy at CNSO

Philosophically, CNSO uses a conservative approach to care, recommending spine surgery only when necessary. At CNSO, the experienced team of physicians and certified physical therapists work in collaboration to treat issues like radiculopathy. Each patient receives a personalized treatment plan to help them achieve the best health outcomes. For patients with a pinched nerve, physical therapy may be recommended in conjunction with conservative care including:

  • Periods of rest
  • Applying ice or heat to the affected area
  • Over-the-counter pain medications
  • Supports such as a soft cervical collar

CNSO’s physical therapy staff has an in-depth understanding of musculoskeletal care and uses techniques like manual therapy, electrical stimulation (ESTIM), physical exercise, and heat and cold therapy. They develop tailored treatment plans focused on patient goals. For some patients, structured physical therapy can be a valuable treatment option for opioid-free pain management.

Learn More About Physical Therapy at CNSO

As a comprehensive spine care center, CNSO is proud to provide surgical and non-surgical care for a wide range of back and spine conditions. The comprehensive medical team at CNSO includes neurosurgeons, orthopedic spine surgeons, interventional pain management physicians, physiatrists, rehabilitation specialists, and certified physical therapists who work in collaboration to ensure appropriate care. Serving patients throughout northern New Jersey and the surrounding areas, CNSO has multiple locations to provide convenient care. For more information about physical therapy at CNSO or to request an appointment, contact CNSO today.

Centers for Neurosurgery Spine & Orthopedics