A pinched nerve in the neck can cause severe pain and discomfort. But what does this common condition actually feel like? Understanding the typical symptoms helps identify a pinched nerve and guides treatment. Here’s an overview of the most common sensations associated with a trapped or compressed nerve in the cervical spine.
Pain and Tenderness
Most people describe a pinched nerve in the neck as causing a sharp, shooting, radiating or burning pain. The pain stems from the compressed nerve root sending aggravated signals to the brain. Even a minor amount of pressure on a nerve can elicit intense pain signals. The pain typically radiates outwards from the compressed area and can shoot down the shoulder, arm or upper back.
The exact location of pain depends on which cervical nerve is affected. A pinched C5 or C6 nerve often causes pain in the base of the neck that radiates into the shoulder and upper arm. A pinched C7 nerve more commonly results in pain, numbness or tingling down the back of the arm towards the middle finger.
Touching or moving the neck tends to worsen the nerve pain and cause localized tenderness. Pain levels can fluctuate from mild aches to completely debilitating. Coughing, sneezing or straining can also intensify nerve pain.
Numbness and Tingling Sensations
Pins and needles feelings, numbness or prickling sensations are also common with a trapped nerve in the neck. This results from the compressed nerve being unable to properly conduct signals and sensations. Numbness frequently radiates along the pathway of the affected nerve into the shoulder, arm, hand or fingers in the distribution pattern of the pinched nerve.
The C6, C7 and C8 cervical nerves that control the arms and hands are often subject to compression. As a result, numbness and tingling commonly extend into the shoulder, forearm, thumb or middle finger when these nerves are impinged at the neck level. Moving the head often worsens and spreads the tingling sensations.
A compressed nerve can’t fully innervate the muscles it supplies, leading to weakness. This may cause difficulty lifting objects or performing fine motor tasks. Specific muscles like the triceps, forearm muscles or thumb muscles weaken in a pattern associated with the irritated nerve root.
Neck nerves that commonly become pinched include the C5 and C7 nerves which control upper arm and forearm strength. Gripping objects may become difficult with a pinched C7 or C8 nerve. Shoulder weakness can result from a compressed C4 nerve. The weakness worsens with activity and lessens with rest.
Doctors often test reflexes to help diagnose and assess a pinched nerve. Diminished or heightened reflexes indicate potential nerve compression. Common reflexes checked are the biceps, triceps, and brachioradialis reflexes which correspond to the C5/C6, C7, and C5 nerves respectively.
For example, a pinched C6 nerve would present with diminished bicep reflexes. Preserved or abnormal reflexes help pinpoint the location of nerve root impingement. Reflex behaviors correlate with the level of nerve damage.
General neck aches and stiffness are common with a cervical pinched nerve. The compressed nerve itself can become inflamed, swollen and sensitive. This directly irritates the nerve and causes localized neck pain. Pinched nerves also cause painful neck muscle spasms as the body tries to guard and protect the irritated nerve.
Sharp neck pains when turning or tilting the head are also common. Nerve compression worsens with certain neck movements that pinch the nerve, eliciting pain. Moving the head away from the pinched side or holding the head straight often relieves pain.
Radiating head pain frequently accompanies a pinched neck nerve. The referred pain travels along the nerve pathway, causing frontal, temporal or migraine-like headaches depending on the compressed nerve. Pinched upper cervical nerves often generate headaches at the base of the skull that extend to the forehead.
The severe pain signals from an inflamed nerve can also simply cause or worsen headaches through central sensitization. Additionally, neck stiffness and muscle tension from guarding the irritated nerve can lead to cervicogenic headaches.
Limitations in Range of Motion
Attempting to turn, extend or flex the neck tends to worsen a pinched nerve, so range of motion becomes limited. Moving the neck towards the side of the pinched nerve or tilting the head back is often painful and difficult.
The muscles around an inflamed nerve instinctively splint and tighten to protect the nerve from further irritation. This muscle guarding behavior further restricts neck mobility. Pain and stiffness when moving the neck helps differentiate a pinched nerve from conditions like arthritis.
In summary, radiating pain, numbness, tingling, weakness, reflex changes, headaches and limited range of motion all characterize a pinched nerve in the neck. The symptoms flare and ease depending on neck positioning and nerve compression. While the sensations vary based on the affected nerve root, identifying a pattern of nerve-related symptoms helps determine an accurate diagnosis. Prompt treatment provides the greatest relief for this painful condition.