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Put simply, a pinched nerve refers to the damage that happens to a nerve or group of nerves when the surrounding tissues (cartilage, disc, bone, tendon, or muscle) place increased pressure on the nerve.
Pinched nerves can happen almost anywhere in your body. The most common areas include:
- lower back
Dr. Jacob Hascalovici, the chief medical officer at Clearing digital health platform and a pain specialist, notes that there are many different kinds of pinched nerves, which are named based on their location.
- Carpal tunnel. Carpal tunnel syndrome happens when the nerve that lives in the tunnel of tendons that snake up your arms becomes compressed, usually due to tendon inflammation.
- Ulnar neuropathy. This condition occurs when the ulnar nerve is compressed, causing tingling in the hand.
To be frank, some pinched nerves will require professional care to treat. But some mild symptoms of pinched nerve can be alleviated at home.
If you’re reading this, odds are you have a pinched nerve or think you do.
Good news: “Pain from a pinched nerve can resolve fairly quickly,” says spine and neck interventional pain management specialist Dr. Kaliq Chang, with Atlantic Spine Center.
So long as you implement the right healing practices, that is. Below are 11 pinched nerve treatment options to try, depending on the exact location of your pinched nerve.
1. Adjust your posture
“Sitting or laying in certain positions may help the pain,” says Chang.
For instance, someone who has a pinched nerve in the neck or low back might try curling into a fetal position or bending their neck or low back away from the pain, he says.
Your move: Experiment with different standing or sitting positions until you find one that relieves some of that discomfort. Then, spend as much time in that position as you can.
2. Use a standing desk
Toot, toot! Time to hop on the standing desk train.
These workstations pull double duty by forcing you out of a less than ideal sitting position and promoting more mobility and movement throughout the day.
Standing and moving more often during the day are crucial to preventing and treating a pinched nerve in the torso or lower body.
If you work in an office and have a pinched nerve (or want to avoid one!), talk with your company’s human resources department about modifying your desk so that you can stand while working. There’s also a range to choose from online.
If you can’t get an official standing desk, you might try turning your current desk into one by putting your laptop or computer monitor on a stack of books. Another option is to be diligent about getting up and taking a walk to the water cooler or bathroom each hour.
3. Reposition your keyboard
On the topic of work stations: If your pinched nerve (or pain) is located in your wrist or forearm, consider adjusting the position of your keyboard.
Ideally, your keyboard should be positioned so that your elbows are in line with your wrist. This means your wrists aren’t reaching down or up to type-type-type.
4. Invest in roller balls
Using these as often as possible — ideally once every hour — can be therapeutic.
5. Wear a wrist splint
For people with severe carpal tunnel syndrome, a splint can be beneficial. Why? Because it forces you to rest and protect your wrist.
(Typically, wrist braces or supports aren’t recommended as an early treatment strategy.)
Hascalovici says a splint can be especially helpful at night because it keeps you from curling your wrist into an unfavorable position while you snooze.
Learn more: 9 home remedies for carpal tunnel relief
No matter where you have a pinched nerve, the best thing is usually to rest.
“Initially, rest from exertional activity will allow the nerve, which is actively inflamed, to calm down,” explains Chang.
Depending on the location of the pinched nerve, that may mean pressing pause on lifting, running, texting, or tennis.
“As the inflammatory episode resolves, activity should be resumed slowly to help condition the associated spinal muscles and soft tissues,” he says.
When you do start moving that part of your body again, pay attention to how it feels. Stop the activity if your pain returns.
According to Hascalovici, “In most pinched nerve scenarios, with rest and proper stretching, you can usually get rid of the problem within a few days.”
Gentle stretches can help relieve the pressure on your nerve or nerves and improve symptoms, he says.
Important: Don’t go too deeply into a stretch! If you begin to feel pain or discomfort, ease up on the stretch. Remember that small movements can have a big impact.
8. Apply ice packs
Is your pain fresh? Hascalovici recommends using an ice pack.
“A good old bag of frozen peas works just fine, though you may want to wrap it in a cloth or paper towel to shield your skin,” he says.
You could also massage the hurting area with an ice chip for about 5 minutes.
To start, Hascalovici suggests icing for 15 minutes. Then take a 30 minute break before icing again.
9. Apply heat
“Heat is the more appropriate option once the initial pain has begun to decrease,” says Hascalovici.
The heat will relax the muscles that might be tight around a pinched nerve. Heat also increases blood flow, which can help the healing process.
“Just as you should with ice, protect your skin from direct heat sources,” he says. “Don’t use uncomfortably hot heat, and avoid heat altogether if your skin is damaged or if you are already using a pain cream.”
Hold heat directly onto the pinched nerve for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.
10. Elevate your legs
Is the pinched nerve located somewhere in your lower back? Try laying on your back with legs with your legs up, so that there’s a 90-degree bend in both your hips and knees.
11. Take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever
If you want to try a pain reliever, you can take OTC nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) or aspirin (Bufferin).
Follow the instructions on the bottle, and be sure to check with a doctor or other healthcare professional before taking any new medications.
Curious if you have a pinched nerve or if ~something else~ is going on? A doctor, physical therapist, or other healthcare professional will be able to tell you for sure.
But as general rule, Hascalovici says, pinched nerves feel different from delayed onset muscle soreness, muscle strain, and other soft tissue injuries.
“The sensation of pins and needles you get when your hand or foot falls asleep is the result of a mildly compressed nerve,” he says. That’s a super different sensation than sore muscles, right?
“On the more extreme end, symptoms of a pinched nerve in your neck or back could create sensations of tingling,” he says. “You might also feel a sharp stabbing pain or burning sensations that shoot up and down your limb(s) or back.”
The area could also have muscle spasms or feel overly weak. Sometimes, you may feel like you’re numb, with little to no feeling at all.
According to Chang, a pinched nerve commonly causes sensations of:
- pins and needles
Again, a nerve can get pinched any time there is increased pressure placed on it from the surrounding structures.
So, anything that causes the nerve to become inflamed can result in a pinched nerve.
- Rheumatoid arthritis. This causes inflammation in the joints, which can result in pressure on nearby nerves.
- Herniated disc. A herniated disc in the spine can compress the root of a nerve.
- Diabetes. High blood sugar levels are associated with nerve damage (this is known as diabetic neuropathy).
- Obesity. A higher body weight can put undue strain on internal tissues, causing inflammation.
- Pregnancy. Altering hormone levels can result in tissue swelling, which compresses nerves.
- Injury. Injury from sport or accident can cause inflammation in the body, increasing risk for pinched nerves.
“In most cases, rest and proper stretching resolve the issue,” says Hascalovici. However, sometimes the pinched nerve doesn’t improve after several weeks or months.
His suggestion: If your pain is severe, constant, or keeps returning, you should see a doctor.
You should also see a doctor immediately if you have a pinched nerve that’s:
- affecting your bowel or bladder
- causing a whole limb to be weak or give out
- preventing you from grasping things
- causing you to drop things
The doctor may ask a lot of questions about your lifestyle to determine what’s causing your pinched nerve. Or they may suggest additional testing, such as an X-ray, to determine exactly where the nerve is pinched.
Your doctor may also prescribe a stronger anti-inflammatory medication for pain or physical therapy to help reduce symptoms.
It’s very important that you stop any at-home treatments if they seem to hurt you or make your condition worse.
If you have numbness or tingling that isn’t resolving or is getting worse, contact a physician or a physical therapist ASAP!
The occasional pinched nerve that causes mild symptoms is usually treatable at home. But sometimes pinched nerves are incredibly painful and require immediate professional care.
What’s most important is that you stay in tune with your body and if at-home pinched nerve treatments aren’t helping or if you continually get pinched nerves, that you consult a professional.
A doctor or other healthcare professional may prescribe prescription pain medication, physical therapy, or even surgery.