The term cervical radiculopathy refers to a change in neurological function caused by a compressed spinal nerve root in the neck. Common symptoms associated with cervical radiculopathy include one or more of the following:
- Radicular pain that radiates into the arm
- Pins-and-needles tingling
- Numbness that travels down the arm
- Weakness that may involve different muscles of the arm
Here’s why it happens and how to find relief.
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Cervical nerves and radiculopathy
There are 8 pairs of spinal nerves in the cervical spine, labeled C1 to C8. Each spinal nerve has 2 nerve roots, an anterior root that carries motor signals and a posterior root that carries sensory signals. These cervical nerve roots branch off the spinal cord and exit the spinal canal through the intervertebral foramina (bony holes) to supply motor function and sensation to the shoulder, arm, hand, and fingers.
When a nerve root becomes compressed or irritated, it may experience a disruption in signaling. For example, a disruption in sensory signals could cause numbness, or a disruption in motor signals could cause weakness. Electrodiagnostic testing can confirm a cervical radiculopathy diagnosis.
Cervical nerve root irritation or compression may also cause radicular pain along these same cervical nerves with or without radiculopathy.
Conditions that may cause radiculopathy
Cervical radiculopathy is commonly caused by one or more of the following conditions:
- Cervical degenerative disc disease. When the intervertebral discs lose hydration with age, they can start to flatten out and the foramina may narrow where the spinal nerves exit the spinal canal.
- Cervical osteoarthritis. When the cartilage starts to break down within the facet joints, bone spurs (osteophytes) may develop to enlarge and stabilize the joint. These bony overgrowths may narrow the foramina and compress a nerve root.
- Cervical herniated disc. When the disc’s protective outer layer tears or breaks, inflammatory proteins may leak onto a nearby nerve root, causing inflammation and pain.
Many other causes of cervical radiculopathy exist, such as ligament thickening, fracture, or tumor.
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Symptoms by location
Cervical radiculopathy can cause signs and/or symptoms anywhere from the neck down through the arms and into the fingers. The exact location of pain, tingling, numbness, and/or weakness depends on which cervical nerve root is compressed. For example, compression of the C7 nerve may lead to symptoms that are experienced more in the triceps and/or into the middle part of the hand.1
Cervical radiculopathy signs and symptoms are typically one-sided, such as going down one arm. It is also possible for nerves to be compressed on both sides of the neck and have bilateral symptoms of cervical radiculopathy.
Diagnosis of treatment of cervical radiculopathy
It is important for a medical professional to accurately diagnose cervical radiculopathy before starting treatment. Other conditions have similar symptoms but would require different treatments, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
Common nonsurgical treatments for cervical radiculopathy include:
- Rest and/or activity modification
- Physical therapy
- Ice and/or heat therapy
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Cervical epidural steroid injections
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Cervical radiculopathy usually can be managed and alleviated with nonsurgical treatments. In rare cases when neurological deficits continue to worsen, surgery may be considered to help decompress the nerve.