Cervical radiculitis (cervical radiculopathy) happens when something presses up against one of the nerve roots near the top of your spine. This pressure is usually caused by a herniated or worn vertebral disc.
Cervical radiculitis, sometimes called cervical radiculopathy, happens when a nerve in your upper spine is pushed on or inflamed. Informally, it’s usually called a pinched nerve in your neck.
Cervical radiculitis can be very painful. The pain typically affects one side of your neck more than the other and spreads down into your shoulder and arm. It’s typically caused by a bulging or degenerated disc. This condition can resolve on its own, but because the pain can be long lasting, you may benefit from treatments like medications or physical therapy.
Read on to learn how to identify the symptoms of cervical radiculitis, what might be causing the pain you’re feeling, and how this condition can be diagnosed and treated.
Cervical radiculitis happens when something is putting pressure on the nerves near the top of your spinal column, in an area known as your cervical spine. Your cervical spine stretches down from the base of your skull to the bottom of your neck. It includes seven vertebrae (spinal bones), known as vertebrae C1 through C7.
Between each of your vertebrae, there are discs made of cartilage and other tissues that cushion your spinal bones and prevent them from rubbing against one another when you bend and move. These discs also work as shock absorbers to protect your spine from damage while you walk and run.
Your spinal cord runs like an electrical wire through the center of your spinal column. From there, nerves branch out to different areas of your body so that your brain can send signals back and forth.
When a disc between your vertebra is inflamed or damaged, it puts pressure on the nerves around it, essentially “pinching” the nerve. In your cervical spine, this includes the nerves going down into your arms. This is why the pain often radiates down one arm.
The most notable symptom of cervical radiculitis is neck pain. This pain is typically worse on one side of your neck and typically spreads down one side of your body.
Your cervical spine contains nerve roots that branch out to several different parts of your body. Depending on which vertebra is affected, your pain may extend into one or more of these areas. The nerves extending into your arms are the most commonly affected. Other areas that may be affected include your:
- upper back
The nerves branching out from your cervical spine do a lot more than just send pain signals to and from your brain. This means you may have several other symptoms in addition to pain, including:
- pins and needles
- weakness in your shoulders or arms
- delayed reflexes
- trouble moving your neck, shoulders, or arms
In some cases, pain from this condition can be mild. But more serious cases can result in intense pain that doesn’t go away for weeks. The intensity of the pain can make it hard to move your head or neck. You might also experience shooting pain down your arms or back when you move your neck or reach for something.
Here’s an overview of some of the most
- Bulging disc: A bulging disk happens when wear and tear causes one of the discs between your vertebrae to flatten and bulge. This bulge can put pressure on a nearby nerve root.
- Herniated (or slipped) disc: A herniated disc happens when the outer surface of your disc is damaged and some of the soft, jelly-like material inside the disc leaks out. This material can push up against a nerve.
- Spinal injuries: Injuries that damage your discs or vertebrae can result in nerve compression or damage.
- Bone spurs: Bone spurs are bony growths that build up over time on damaged vertebrae. They can push on nearby nerves.
- Spinal conditions: Conditions that result in abnormal growth or development of your spine and affect its shape, such as scoliosis, can lead to a pinched nerve.
Some conditions can also affect your production of disc tissue and can lead to damaged, slipped, or ruptured discs. One of these conditions is Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS). This condition results from a genetic mutation that can result in your body not making enough collagen. This can cause your discs to weaken or degenerate more quickly than usual.
Age is the biggest risk factor for cervical radiculitis. The older you get, the more likely it is that your joints will wear down over time and cause damage to your nerves.
Genetics and lifestyle choices can also increase your risk of developing cervical radiculitis.
Here are some of the most
- having white European ancestry
- using tobacco products, such as cigarettes
- having a history of neck strain or injury
- putting a lot of pressure on your spine regularly for work
- using heavy vibrating machinery regularly
- regularly taking part in athletic activities that can overexert your spine, especially golf and baseball
A doctor or healthcare professional will do a physical exam to check for issues around your body, especially your neck, shoulders, back, and arms. They may ask you to move your neck and shoulders to see how movement affects your pain or if you’re experiencing any trouble moving.
They may also perform a neurological exam and look for muscle weakness by seeing if you can resist pressure on your hands or arms.
A doctor can also use imaging tests to examine your neck and confirm a diagnosis of bone or disc injuries. Some of these imaging tests include:
- X-ray: An X-ray is used to look for bone growths, damage to your discs, tumors, or narrowing of the spaces between your vertebrae.
- Computed tomography (CT) scan: A CT scan is used to capture more detailed images of your spinal column.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): An MRI can show detailed three-dimensional images of your spinal nerves and tissues.
- Electromyography (EMG): EMG uses sensors to see how your nerves are sending electrical signals to your muscles.
Cervical radiculitis often heals on its own with rest, especially when it’s caused by a minor injury or overuse.
But, in some cases, you may need to address severe pain or look into other symptom treatments.
A doctor may recommend pain medications to help relieve pain that results from nerve compression or damage.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as naproxen (Aleve) and ibuprofen (Advil), are often recommended to help reduce pain and swelling. A doctor might also recommend medications for nerve pain, prescription pain relievers, or muscle relaxants.
Corticosteroid injections into your spine are sometimes recommended to help relieve severe pain. This medication helps reduce inflammation and may help take the pressure off your affected nerve. These injections are delivered into your spine with the help of imaging techniques like X-rays.
Injections may be given every few months to control pain and swelling while you heal. But these aren’t meant to be long-term solutions for joint degeneration, which may require more involved treatment.
In many cases, physical therapy can help improve pain, strengthen your neck, and reduce your risk of future injuries.
Other strategies you might try include:
- practicing good posture when you sit, stand, or walk
- wearing a soft cervical collar after trauma (temporarily) to help keep your neck from moving too much
- receiving cervical traction to reduce pressure on your spine
- getting a relaxing massage to reduce tension
- doing exercises to learn how to use your neck and shoulder muscles in a safe range of motion
- strengthening certain muscle groups, such as your neck muscles and upper arm muscles, to support your spine
- doing push and pull exercises to learn how to use your muscles safely and carefully to reduce your risk of injury or strain
In many cases, adjustments to your lifestyle can help reduce pain or difficulty moving due to cervical radiculitis as well as prevent it from happening:
- Sit up or stand up straight and look directly forward at a screen while you’re working at a desk.
- Use a standing desk (if possible) to avoid sitting for long periods.
- Rest your arms and wrists on cushions while you sit to reduce strain on your muscles.
- Use a seat cushion when you sit for long periods to reduce pressure on your spine.
- Apply a cold compress or heating pad to your neck for 20 minutes at a time to reduce pain and swelling.
- Do stretches and light exercises regularly to maintain mobility in your joints and keep your muscles strong.
- Maintain a moderate weight to reduce strain on your muscles and joints.
- Cervical radiculitis happens when a nerve gets pinched in your neck and causes pain.
- This pain can go away with rest or home treatment. But it may need to be treated with medications or physical therapy if it’s disruptive to your life.
- Get in touch with a doctor or spine specialist if you need help treating a pinched nerve.