You've heard it a million times before, and perhaps you've even said it yourself — "I have a pinched nerve in my neck." We hear it so frequently these days that it has lost quite a bit of its impact. People use it to describe a variety of conditions and a wide range of symptoms.
This is not good practice, however, because the treatment for a true pinched nerve is not the same as treatment for a benign, stiff neck.
What is a pinched nerve? In medical terms, a pinched nerve is formally called a compressive neuropathy. A structure in the neck such as a peripheral nerve, or in extreme cases, the spinal cord, is being squeezed by something that is out of place. Although this can occur anyplace in the body, the most common site is in the lower cervical levels and the junction where the neck meets the upper back.
What are the symptoms of a pinched nerve? The symptoms of a pinched nerve vary broadly from patient to patient. The main hallmark of a pinched nerve is numbness and tingling in the upper arm, elbow or hand. Other signs of nerve pain include the sensation of burning, cool or iciness, pulsating pain, cramping and knotting of the muscle, a feeling of extreme tightness or the feeling that your arm is 'dead.' While this is not a full list of nerve-related problems, these adjectives describe a bulk of the symptoms related to a nerve lesion.
Where are the most common places to feel pain if I have a pinched nerve? Although possible, it is more rare to feel pain directly in the neck. While there are a handful of patients who will describe the back of their neck as being numb, most patients will describe an area across the tops of their shoulders and upper back with some of the symptoms mentioned previously. Additionally, one arm will often be sore (in the absence of trauma) and the hand may feel thick or heavy.