At some point in most of our lives, we've experienced a pinched nerve. An everyday example is when your foot "falls asleep." Although this health condition is quite common, few of us know the right way to relieve or treat it. Here's a quick primer.

What is a Pinched Nerve?

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a pinched nerve is damage or injury to a nerve or set of nerves from compression, constriction or stretching. Think of your nerves as tubes through which blood flows. When you have a pinched nerve, that hose is squeezed or compressed, which blocks the flow of blood.

Health conditions that may cause a pinched nerve include a slipped disc, arthritis, dislocation, fracture, tumor, blood clot, a bone spur, repetitive motion, or using a cast or crutches. You may experience symptoms such as numbness, "pins and needles," a burning sensation, or shooting pains down your back, buttocks or extremities.

How Does a Pinched Nerve Affect Your Health?

Aside from the symptoms you'll have, a pinched nerve can cause long-term health problems, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, or peripheral neuropathy. The University of Iowa Health Care indicates that the constant pain and pressure may also lead to permanent nerve damage, loss of sensation and reflexes, difficulties with movement, and muscle atrophy or loss of muscle mass.  

Diagnosis for a Pinched Nerve

Due to the potential long-term damage and health problems associated with a pinched nerve, it's essential to see a doctor when you first experience symptoms. There are a few tests you'll need to take that are done at the same time and usually take about an hour, states the Mayo Clinic:

• Electromyography. A test that measures electrical discharges produced in the muscles. It involves having a thin needle electrode placed into your muscle to record electrical activity as you contract muscles.

• Nerve conduction study. Also called a nerve velocity test, it reveals if you have a damaged nerve. The technician will apply patch-style electrodes to your skin to stimulate nerves with an electrical impulse.

• Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This increasingly popular test used to diagnose myriad health problems uses a magnetic field and radio waves to produce cross-sectional images of your body. It helps the doctor to determine if there is compression in your spine.

Treatment and Relief for a Pinched Nerve

In many cases a pinched nerve will go away - sometimes in a few days or a week - with little treatment. However, your first line of defence is to rest the affected area to relieve compression. Medications such as corticosteroids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories can relieve pain.

Your doctor may also recommend a splint or collar - such as a neck collar, or a wrist splint commonly prescribed for carpal tunnel syndrome - to stabilize the affected area and relieve pressure. Researchers are looking at non-surgical approaches, such as magnet therapy and a neuro-protective dietary supplement, but the current treatment for severe cases is surgery.

Other treatments that may relieve a pinched nerve include:

  • Physical therapy exercises
  • Chiropractic manipulation
  • Massage, which research suggests can improve flexibility and reduce pain
  • Applying a heating pad
  • Rubbing or shaking the affected limb
  • Elevating the affected limb
  • Finding new ways to perform the activity that caused the pinched nerve, especially if it's job-related
  • Yoga and strength training to improve posture and tone muscles to relieve nerve pressure

Although a pinched nerve is painful, annoying and disruptive to your daily activities, the good news from the NINSD is that most people will recover.

Sources: The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, University of Iowa Health Care, The Mayo Clinic, UW Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine