Understanding Radicular Pain and Why It Should Not Be Ignored

Family of four smiling and playing tennis

A nagging pain in the shoulder or leg might not seem like a major issue. However, chronic neck or back pain that radiates into other parts of the body can be a sign that a spinal nerve is irritated or compressed. Left untreated, this can lead to muscle weakness or even nerve damage. Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics (CNSO) is New Jersey’s most comprehensive spine and neurosurgery center. Learn more about radiculopathy and how it is treated.

What Is Radiculopathy?

Radiculopathy, also known as radicular pain, develops when a spinal nerve root is compressed, a condition that commonly is known as a pinched nerve. Nerves branch from the spinal cord and travel to different parts of the body, controlling muscle movements and other functions.

Radicular pain often radiates from the nerve root and into the limbs. Cervical radiculopathy, for example, causes neck pain that travels into the shoulder or arm. Lumbar radiculopathy, in contrast, starts in the lower back and can shoot down the buttocks into a leg or foot.

Radiculopathy also can cause numbness, tingling, or a pins-and-needles sensation. Nerve compression can cause muscle weakness, as well. Patients with cervical radiculopathy may notice they have difficulty lifting or that they frequently drop things because of muscle weakness in the arms and hands. If a patient has lumbar radiculopathy, they may have difficulty with walking, balance, or coordination.

In some patients, nerves that affect bladder or bowel function are compressed, leading to incontinence. Radiculopathy symptoms usually are unilateral, meaning they affect just one side of the body.

Conditions That Can Cause Radiculopathy

Radicular pain and associated symptoms can be caused by a few different conditions that affect the spinal nerves. These include:

  • Osteoarthritis: As a person ages, their joints begin to break down. Osteoarthritis can lead to spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal, or bone spurs. These conditions create less space for nerve roots to exit the spinal canal.
  • Disc herniation: A herniated disc occurs when one of the discs between the spinal vertebrae ruptures or loses its shape. The soft tissue inside the disc pushes out and presses against a nerve.
  • Scoliosis: A sideways curve of the spine that can be present at birth or develop later in life, scoliosis can lead to radicular pain.
  • Tumors: A brain tumor or spine tumor that presses on a nerve also can be the cause of radiculopathy.

How Radicular Pain Is Diagnosed and Treated

Patients experiencing radicular pain should have it evaluated immediately. A medical provider can diagnose radiculopathy through a physical examination and imaging tests. They will review the patient’s current symptoms and medical history and ask about what makes the pain better or worse. They may use X-rays to check the vertebrae for issues such as bone spurs of the spine or dislocation. An MRI or CT scan can visualize the soft tissues and look for problems such as disc herniation.

Fortunately, a pinched nerve often can be treated without surgery. Non-invasive treatment options for pain management include:

  • Rest and activity modification
  • Applying hot or cold packs to the affected areas
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Physical therapy, including stretching and exercises
  • Epidural steroid injection treatments to reduce inflammation

If a patient has used these treatment options and is still experiencing pain, surgery may be the next step. The best surgical procedure to treat radiculopathy depends on the source of the patient’s pain. A herniated disc, for example, can be treated by a neurosurgeon or orthopedic spine surgeon with a procedure known as a discectomy or microdiscectomy. If radicular pain is caused by a tumor or cyst, surgical removal should alleviate the pain.

Find Patient-Centered Care at CNSO

The dedicated team of spine specialists and neurosurgeons at CNSO understands how to effectively treat radiculopathy and the underlying issues that can cause radiating nerve pain. A comprehensive, award-winning spine care center, CNSO has multiple locations throughout northern New Jersey. The providers at CNSO philosophically take a conservative approach toward care, and every evaluation considers whether an evidence-based, non-invasive technique can ultimately treat the patient and eliminate the need for surgery.

The medical team includes board-certified neurosurgeons, orthopedic spine surgeons, interventional pain management physicians, physiatrists, rehabilitation specialists, and certified physical therapists who work together to coordinate care. Additionally, CNSO has providers who speak Spanish, Korean, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, and Mandarin Chinese in addition to English, so patients can talk with their specialist in the language they know best. To schedule an appointment or learn more about radiculopathy treatment, contact CNSO today.

Centers for Neurosurgery Spine & Orthopedics